India’s P.V. Sindhu and Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara have faced each other four times since the quarter-finals at Rio Olympics last year, each winning two matches. But none of the matches have been as intense as the epic final at the Badminton World Championships in Glasgow some weeks ago—one that lasted an hour and 50 minutes in which the two players pushed each other to the limits with 75-second rallies. The result apart, there are two key takeaways from that match: one, that the women’s game is top-notch at this moment and, two, the fitness levels of players these days are almost unreal. It was a surprise that neither of the finalists had to be stretchered off the court.

Over the last few months, Indian players’ commitment towards fitness has been on the rise and they are now at par with international players. Be it Saina Nehwal who, exactly a year after her career-threatening knee injury, found herself on the World Championships podium with a bronze medal, or the male players—Kidambi Srikanth, H.S. Prannoy, B. Sai Praneeth, Parupalli Kashyap—who have had injury-ridden careers, they have made successful returns to the badminton court, fitter and stronger.

“The way I played, and the level of fitness I am currently at, surprised me," says Nehwal. “A lot of people doubted me. But I just focused on my rehab."

Physiotherapist Heath Matthews who worked on Nehwal’s rehabilitation after her surgery in August last year, gives a lot of credit to Nehwal for getting back in shape. “Saina is a naturally intelligent athlete," Matthews says. “So while it is of utmost importance to have a structured fitness programme for her and monitor that on a daily basis, there are some things that I leave to her."

While not playing a tournament, Nehwal’s training regime includes a gym routine four days a week, apart from her badminton practice sessions. “It’s structured in a way that the exercise is progressive," says Matthews. “So we address every body part, with more attention to the one that is weak from injury or surgery (the right knee in Nehwal’s case). Whether it’s training with weights, or speed training, as the week progresses, it becomes heavier and more intense."

Back at the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad in September after a three-year stint in Bengaluru where she was coached by Vimal Kumar, Nehwal’s training and fitness now will have to be reworked by the core team there—chief coach Pullela Gopichand, Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo, who started work in India in March, and physiotherapist Kiran Challagundla.

Before Handoyo joined the team, there was a certain kind of training routine followed, which was amped up before major tournaments. Sindhu, for instance, trained for 6-7 hours a day, divided across three sessions, while training for her Olympic silver. Apart from racket work, there were gym and running sessions, and close to 300 abdominal exercises a day.

Handoyo’s philosophy is different. Two-hour training sessions interspersed with long gaps have turned into 4 gruelling hours on court and plenty of running exercises with water breaks. But it’s important to keep the variety. “The idea is to keep it varied. Otherwise you stop pushing," says one of the physios.

The diet is equally important. Sweets are a no-no for all. Someone like Sindhu, with a naturally low appetite and lean built, is pushed to eat more proteins and carbohydrates, while Prannoy can’t touch a pizza or a pasta more than once a month.

Badminton players, unlike, say, tennis players in Grand Slams, play for six days at a stretch. Which means post-match recovery becomes more crucial. Ice baths and ice massages are the most frequently used recovery methods, while some of them also rely on slow running to prevent lactic acid formation in the body.

Another factor that has led to an overall increased fitness level among the players is proper diagnoses of injuries. “We have all been to doctors who have left us confused. Can I play, or can I not play? Dr (Dinshaw) Pardiwala gives you a good perspective and is very clear with his surgery. That’s made a huge difference in our comebacks," says Prannoy. Nehwal, Kashyap and Prannoy, all have consulted Dr Pardiwala, an orthopaedic surgeon at the Kokilaben Hospital in Mumbai.

This year has been one of India’s best in badminton. With the Commonwealth and Asian Games coming up next year, things are only going to get more intense.

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