Till a few years ago, Saina Nehwal used to treat herself to ice cream only after winning a tournament. Training under hard taskmaster Pullela Gopi Chand back in the days, she would not be allowed more anyway.
Cut to December, and Nehwal shares photographs of herself on social media spending time at a shopping mall with her father, eating an ice cream. She had just made a quarter-final exit from the Macau Open, a lower tier tournament where she lost to a player ranked 216 places below her.
You could say the 26-year-old has changed a lot from the time she used to train under Gopi Chand. She’s been a world No.1 (in 2015), fallen out of the top 10 in the world rankings for the first time in seven years (November) and somewhere in between, seen her dream of winning another Olympic medal come crashing down with an injury (August). Images of her on social media—there is a relentless stream of selfies and photos of her relaxing with her family, friends or dogs—might make you think that Nehwal has come to terms with the fact that she is far from the top of her game at the moment, and that she is, for perhaps the first time in her sporting career, taking it easy.
Younger and fitter players have emerged, as Nehwal has attempted to return to the sport just three months after a career-threatening injury, and it’s really okay to lose once in a while.
It is easy to be deceived by her happy existence on social media platforms, but the fact is that Nehwal just cannot relax. She continues to be the obsessed athlete that she’s always been—fiercely competitive, and desperate to be back on top again.
The Olympics have always been a huge deal for the London 2012 bronze medallist. When she left for Rio, the Hyderabadi felt a slight stiffness in her thigh.
“We thought it was just an inflammation and it would be fine,” says her coach Vimal Kumar. “But after the first practice session in Rio, the pain increased. We consulted the doctors at the Olympic Village, but continued to train. Till one day when Saina just gave up and said, ‘I can’t take it anymore’.”
With painkillers that would allow her to play just 25% of her game, Nehwal got knocked out of the Olympics, losing her second-round match to World No.61 Maria Ulitina of Ukraine. Nehwal was ranked fifth in the world at the time.
“She was devastated,” recalls Kumar. “We returned to India well before we had intended to. She didn’t talk much, and there’s not much I could ask either. It was difficult for both of us to digest what had just happened.” And while Kumar returned to his academy in Bengaluru, Nehwal found herself on a hospital bed in Mumbai. She had sustained an intra-articular injury on her right knee. Simply put, a tiny chip of a bone had separated from the knee cap, and was floating around inside a mass of fat in the knee area, causing excruciating pain. “I have no idea how she even played two matches at the Olympics,” says Dr Dinshaw Pardiwala of the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai, who did her surgery in August.
On the day when P.V. Sindhu was playing the Women’s Singles Final at the Rio Olympics, Nehwal was entering the operation theatre in Mumbai. While the former had made history already, for the latter it was a make or break situation. But Pardiwala is known to be one of the best in the business for a reason.
“Saina’s surgery was done very neatly,” says physiotherapist Heath Matthews (a Mint columnist) who worked on Nehwal’s rehabilitation and recovery after the surgery. “And that’s why we could get on with the rehab so early.”
The rehabilitation had to be planned meticulously. “The first few weeks was about ensuring there was no further inflammation, then it was about restoring movement and flexibility very slowly,” says Matthews. “After the first three-six weeks, we had to ensure that no complications were aggravated. We had to ensure all tissues were moving, and then load the tissues little by little. Basically all her joint and tissue function had to be healthy.”
And while it takes athletes about four-five months to return to any sort of basic treatment, in three months’ time, Nehwal found herself back at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Benguluru. “We started with making Saina sit on a chair and pretending to play shadow strokes,” says Matthews. “Then we removed the chair, following which we made her stand and shadow stroke. In the next few days we added a racket into the mix, then an actual shuttle and finally an opponent much later. For the longest time it was non-contact movement we were focusing on, and adding an element at a time as we tried to mimic a training and match environment.”
And how was Nehwal’s response to it? “Professional,” says Matthews. “She wants to be back as the World No.1, she’s clear about that, so anything that needs to be done to proceed in that direction, will be done. Saina is extremely driven as an athlete, otherwise she wouldn’t have seen the face of a badminton court for a couple of more months. That’s why she also expects everyone on her team working with her to be equally driven, you cannot slack.”
While Nehwal was confident about hitting the shuttle and getting ready for competition again, Kumar wasn’t. “After rehab, she just showed up on court,” he says. “Maybe she wanted to show that she was alright? I knew it was impossible for her to digest the fact that she had picked up that injury possibly while travelling to Rio or in Rio. And that ended everything for her. You could see she’d put on some weight, and seriously lacked strength in her legs. But she said she felt good, and was ready to play again.”
At the China Open Super Series Premier, a tournament Nehwal had won in 2014, she made a first-round exit. It was the first time in 30 months that she had made a first-round exit, but she showed intent. Thailand’s Porntip Buranaprasertsuk beat her 21-16, 19-21, 21-14. “I think she rushed into it,” says Kumar of Nehwal’s comeback. “I think China was too rushed for a comeback, and that’s not my approach. But it’s her body and she knows best. As a coach do I agree with it? No. But Saina has always been bold with her decisions, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.”
The following week, Nehwal made it to the quarter-finals of the Hong Kong Open. And while many may have been disappointed that the semi-final showdown between Saina and Sindhu didn’t eventually happen, the former definitely displayed progress. In 72 hours, she had played 9 sets, and that included beating the World No.11 and 13 on consecutive days.
“To do that just three months after surgery… If that’s not incredible, I don’t know what is,” says Matthews, who followed Nehwal’s performance from India. “That’s not some Mickey Mouse badminton she’s playing, and her opponents aren’t exactly average players.”
Another week, another tournament, and yet another quarter-final finish. This time it was in Macau, a lower tier tournament that mostly inexperienced players take part in. Nehwal, seeded No.1, lost in straight games to China’s Zhang Yiman, ranked 226th in the world, in just 35 minutes. It would end up being Nehwal’s last competitive match of the year. “She needs to shed a few kilos, and needs more lung and leg power,” says Kumar. “The goal is getting back to being World No.1,” says Matthews. “Give her 12 months to do it.”
Kumar doesn’t rule that out either. “Rankings always go up, that’s never the issue,” he says. “She should just not be desperate to win. She will win soon, that I am sure of. She should just relax.”
Does Kumar think that’s possible with Nehwal?
“No, I don’t think so,” he says.