“Let’s see what all injuries my body can cope with.”
In the moment she uttered that line, you could see that, behind her facemask, Saina Nehwal was also wearing a wry smile. The tone was that of a body and mind that has witnessed a great deal of ups and downs. A few moments earlier, she had rattled off a list of injuries she has had to battle in recent times. And she did that with a hint of a smile too. Perhaps only an athlete who has seen the highest of highs, can discuss the lowest of lows with some physical and mental distancing.
When Saina spoke to the media on Wednesday about her struggles, she had also just witnessed the other side of the equation.
At the end of her first-round match against the Czech Republic’s Tereza Svabikova, Saina was not exchanging pleasantries. Because the match had not reached its full conclusion. Instead, she was enquiring her opponent about her injury that led to an early end. Saina was leading 22-20, 1-0 at that time, and Svabikova went down clutching her back.
Saina said she had never quite seen a back injury as bad on the court and was enquiring the well being of her opponent, writhing in pain, eventually even unable to walk off the court. Saina knows. “I just wanted to know why it happened,” she said.
Indeed, in recent times, Saina would perhaps have given anything to know the “why” of what was happening to her. The former world No 1 was forced to miss a lot of tournaments in 2021, including the World Championships (a tournament where she has been nearly an ever-present), due to multiple injuries.
“My fitness and recovery levels were really good in last months [before the European swing] and I was able to take the tough training. But one bad step and I got a groin tear. But I didn’t know that my knee had ongoing issues which really got bad in the French Open. It all happened suddenly. Till then it wasn’t so bad. I could at least go up and down the stairs. After that, I was limping. I could not walk.”
Saina had returned to action at the Thomas and Uber Cup Final in Aarhus, Denmark in October but had to retire midway in the round-robin match against Spain’s Clara Azurmendi due to what she thought was a niggle in the groin region. She played in Denmark but again withdrew midway into the second game of the first-round match at the French Open.
“It was about three issues: I tore my cartilage, I had issues with the patella and there was one more meniscus, or something which got really irritated. The knee went through a lot of trauma. Finally, a stage came when I couldn’t walk after French open,” she said.
“I was worried about by groin but I didn’t know that my knee was in big trauma and when I came back and did MRI, my doctor was like: ‘I don’t think you can go for the World Championship or play till the end of December’.”
The London Olympics bronze medallist said she is around 60-70% at the moment and hopes to reach her peak in a couple of weeks and work hard in training after that.
And of course, these things take a toll. With age, with the wear and tear, it is inevitable for an athlete. Especially in a sport that is as hard as on the body as badminton. It can’t be easy to keep finding the motivation but the 31-year-old wants to keep at it.
“It is a challenge and I want to accept it. Let’s see what all injuries my body can cope up with and come back strongly. It is not easy, sometimes I definitely feel I am trying so much, sometimes you feel like giving up. I have to thank my friends and family... my parents; they like the game, I like the game. When I watch others playing, I like it. I do my warmups and it gives the confidence I can come back. Maybe let’s work on some new areas, I thought. Explore things sometimes.
“The mental part is very difficult because tournaments are going on, players are winning and I am just sitting and watching them play. But it is okay... it’s a challenge, let us fight. Maybe there are some good days ahead, I look forward to that.”
Acceptance, the key for Prannoy
And while Saina accepts this challenge in her career, HS Prannoy too is hoping to push ahead on the force of a fresh wind on his back. At 29, Prannoy has a couple more years on his peer. But the frustrations with injuries, if anything, have perhaps followed Prannoy around for longer.
However, on his return to action at the recent World Championships, he showed what he is capable of with a couple of high profile wins before eventually losing to the soon-to-be-crowned world champion in the last eight after a fantastic fight.
“Yes, a lot of things going off against me in the last few years and yes, being one of the top players in the country is still a tough spot to be I’d say... things are like that,” Prannoy said on Wednesday after his straight-forward first-round win against a tricky opponent in Pablo Abian.
“I have decided to let go of things and focus on the game... performance speaks. There was a time when I was not physically alright, and that was the main issue for performance not happening on the court, but recently I have felt better physically and mentally.
“Definitely there was a point to prove that I am not done yet, and I am a player who can be in the top 5 of the world. I trust my instinct, and hopefully in the next few months we will have something good,” he said.
Prannoy, a former top 10 player, says the key has been to find acceptance. Where a few years back, he’d spend energy ruing, he wants to embrace the art of letting go. With age, of course, comes that wisdom.
“Acceptance level has been much better compared to last 4-5 years back. It was really tough to accept things coming my way... injuries, sponsorships, etc. I am at a phase where I have accepted all these. It is much more easier for me to push things away when it is not happening... when there is a negative issue, it’s been much easier for me to let it go. I have been thankful to god, at least I have been able to play this much badminton.
“That has made me to focus on the sport much easier than before. I used to fight against things that happened to me, a lot of energy used to go behind that. I am much more relaxed now, this is how sport works, I just have to perform, nothing else will matter,” he said.
Indeed, for both Saina and Prannoy, at this stage of their careers, it would take a lot of mental and physical discipline (and a good side serving of luck) to keep up with the everyday grind of elite sport. There could be bad days... weeks even. Nobody said it was easy at this stage of their careers, but for the challenges that await, the two battle-hardened veterans are arming themselves with acceptance and hope.
(With PTI inputs)