There was no great celebration as Adita Rao converted her match point – just a simple fist-pump before she walked over to her kit-bag, packed it up and walked off court. At the badminton hall at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune during the 84th Senior National Championships late February, the 18-year-old asked if she could sit down and immediately started fiddling with the heavy strapping on her right leg. Once she was satisfied, she offered an explanation.

“If I trip or even have a minor twist, I have to go for surgery,” she told Scroll.

“I’m very scared while playing. This is my first tournament after the injury – I haven’t played for two months now. And there’s a lot of pressure in mind because of the injury. Right now, I’m just testing myself to see how capable I am to play in these situations.”

This was just after she won her round of 64 match at the Nationals. Because of the injury and the threat it carried, Rao asserted that she held no expectation from herself at the tournament. Yet she ended up reaching the semifinal, before losing to current world No 43 Aakarshi Kashyap, the eventual runner-up.

This was a dogged, injury-defying attempt to compete. Ironically, it came just a few years after she had contemplated leaving the sport altogether.

“I was a struggler on court. I’d reach the quarters or pre-quarters and then lose. That was the barrier I just couldn’t break. People would always say that I’m a very good player, but for me there was no point in just being a ‘good player’ if I couldn’t get past that and win,” she said.

“There were a lot of financial struggles. And then all the struggles on court, not being able to break those barriers, it just annoyed me a lot to the point that I felt that there was no point in playing. I was 16. My parents were the ones who kept encouraging me to continue, but in the back of my mind I knew I didn’t have a coach to guide me.

“I just thought in the long run, there is no money coming in, who is going to look after my parents. I thought it’s just best to leave this and focus on my academics.”

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Renewed passion

Rao first took up the sport seriously when her talent was spotted during a summer camp at the Dadoji Kondadev Stadium in Thane. She was 12 at the time and started to train under the guidance of Amrish Shinde. The coach though would soon shift to Hyderabad and Rao was forced to travel great distances to continue training. That left a void.

The performances did not live up to her potential and she fell into a spiral.

But all that changed in 2021. Shinde moved to Anand, Gujarat where he had set up an academy. Rao soon followed and was exposed to the vast world of professional badminton training.

“I got more serious about badminton and I decided that I wanted this to be my career,” she said.

“When I was in Mumbai I’d just have one training session per day and that was it. When I moved to Gujarat, there were two sessions of badminton, then there were sessions for gym work, swimming. The whole training experience changed – it was all about building up the strength and conditioning. From being a struggler on court, I started to do the struggling off it.”

Of course, moving to Anand came with a measure of sacrifice. Initially, Rao moved by herself and lived in a hostel.

“The coach told me that the hostel food will not be sufficient,” Rao’s mother Manisha explained to Scroll.

“The workload had increased and she started to get injured frequently because the food intake was not good enough. She needed protein. And I had to be there to at least make sure she was getting the right food.”

Manisha had a steady corporate job in Mumbai, which she would have to leave to move to Anand.

“It was difficult to leave that job and then move to Anand. My family too were putting pressure on me, telling me it’s a huge risk because Adita was still young and there was no guarantee that she would become a professional player. But we decided to go for it. It was a struggle, moving to a new city, finding a home and setting things up there from scratch.”

Upward curve

In hindsight, the move did work out.

Rao found the missing pieces to the puzzle she was looking for. Her aggressive game improved, and she started to make her way into the later rounds of tournaments.

“All of a sudden my level just went up and I started to win. I won the U-19 West Zone and the state championship,” she said. “In October there was an All-India tournament (VV Natu Memorial All India Senior Ranking Badminton Tournament) right here in Pune. That was my first senior tournament and I reached the final (losing to current world No 39 Malvika Bansod 21-13, 17-21, 20-22).”

She was on a high, but on December 3 last year, during a practice session, she twisted her ankle – tearing a ligament and tendon along with a fracture.

Doctors advised her not to play the senior nationals, but she remained adamant. And there was the threat of a surgery should there be another twist. But Rao, with Shinde by her side, altered her game.

Her compulsive-attacking style became largely defensive. Rally-lengths were extended, and Rao was consciously not hitting as hard as she earlier did.

“The faster you hit, the faster it can come back and I don’t want to make any sudden jerks,” she said.

“Right now, I’m just playing a game where I’m not rushing too much and the opponent can’t force me into a corner where my leg starts to hurt. It’s very different from what I normally play.”

She took it easy all through the five matches she played in Pune, yet had the skill to push through opposition and make it to the semifinals. In the process, her domestic ranking improved from No 3 to 2. Yet with the ranking change came the responsibility to continue competing, regardless of the injury.

It’s been a month since the Pune sojourn, and Rao continues to harbour the dream of breaking into the senior national team. Even if it means she has to continue playing regularly – she is set to play an all-India ranking event in New Delhi in April. The defiant youngster hopes to soldier on.