There were tears of joy and frenzied celebrations when India’s Krishna Nagar, ranked world No 2 at the time, beat Hong Kong’s Chu Man Kai to win gold in the men’s SH6 category in para badminton at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics in September 2021.

“The scene (in Tokyo) was a joyful moment for me,” Nagar told Scroll. “Because it was my dream to be included in the Paralympics for the first time and I was selected at that time. So it was a big thing for us players that we were going to the Paralympics. The players were very happy. We were very happy about the selection. But we were happier when we got the Paralympics medal.”

But towards the end of May 2023, this time Chu got one over Nagar and beat him to win gold at the Bahrain Para Badminton International 2023. Now ranked world No 7, the 24-year-old has had to rebuild after missing out on most of the 2022 season due to personal and health reasons (the loss of a family member and recovering from chicken-pox).

This season has definitely been an uphill climb for the Tokyo champion – other than his silver medal in Bahrain, Nagar has won bronze in singles and gold in doubles with Sivarajan Solaimalai at the Thailand Para Badminton International 2023. Clawing back to the top is nothing new for the shuttler from Rajasthan though. After all, that’s how his story started.

As a child, Nagar was always actively playing sports – cricket being one of his favourites. The dream of becoming a professional sportsperson for India waned after he finished 12th grade. In college, he decided to focus on his studies but was soon roped into joining the college volleyball team as a ‘libero’ which saw him using his incredible jumping abilities). But Nagar felt that he needed something more and in 2016, in order to maintain his fitness, he joined badminton and met his coach Yadvendra Singh in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

If you ask Nagar about the secret of his success that saw him emerge on the para badminton circuit in 2017, he credits Singh as the one who pushed Nagar towards playing the sport and turning pro. Nagar recounted several challenges when entering the sport including being able to cover the court easily and setbacks like being unable to clear a World Championship trial in 2017.

“I have been playing with him (Singh) since the beginning. He knows me very well – what Krishna is doing, what Krishna wants, what mistake Krishna is making in the game,” said Nagar, highlighting the impact of Singh on his career. “Whenever I am with him, he always tells me that I lose my patience. I have to be patient. So, he told me that even in 2018, don’t stop this jump. Keep it going and do it well.”

It’s in Nagar’s game

Catch any glimpse of Nagar’s game footage and you’ll notice two things – his incredible speed across court and penchant for jump smashes. According to his national team coach Gaurav Khanna, his jumps are what sets him apart from the rest of the circuit in the SH6 category (defined by BWF as ‘​​players who have a short stature due to a genetic condition.’)

Nagar himself pointed out that it is so well-known among his fellow competitors that sometimes, his speed is used against him. “I was a little confused during the match (against Chu in Bahrain) and the game pattern was changing and it’s already improved. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. The game was going fast and I wanted to slow it down. So I couldn’t convert the game in the right way,” he said.

Khanna also agreed with Nagar’s assessment of his game.

“Since the beginning, he is quite fast. Sometimes we used to say that his speed is so fast that he is already in the place of the shuttlecock, even if the shuttlecock is not there,” Khanna told Scroll.

“So, this might have resulted in the errors in execution of strokes. It was always a plan just to slow down his speed and make more calculations over the type of stroke which he is going to execute – to execute the same in a very positive way, so that we can minimize his unforced errors.”

Slowing down the speed of his game and trying to make rallies longer have been hallmarks of Nagar’s training since his return in 2023. “Everyone knows about me, everyone knows about my game, how I play. The players study me so I try to make a lot of changes and keep it calm while playing,” said Nagar, who will now head to Canada for his next tournament in June.

He continued, “In other tournaments, like the previous ones, like Brazil and Spain, I couldn’t give a good performance. I was lacking a lot of things. But I did well in Thailand. I did well in Bahrain. I was a little bit confident right now, but after Canada, I think I will be more confident.”

Khanna also indicated that Nagar can make small adjustments to his game to ensure that he controls the speed of the match. “He needs to slow down, he needs to meditate more, he needs to concentrate more,” the coach said.

“He needs to be more focused on court. And he needs to have some time in between the rallies. When he is going to execute a stroke and (the rally) is on the verge of finishing and he is taking that point. That time he doesn’t need to retaliate or he doesn’t need to be very impatient to take the point. So, in that condition, of course, he has been advised to be a bit slow, calm down and relax. Slow down the speed, make him more positive and again take back the initial speed and do it more aggressively. So, this is always the plan.”

Aside from technical aspects, Nagar has also had to overcome personal challenges. The loss of his mother after Tokyo 2020, a big role model for Nagar in his career, and health issues meant that after June 2022, the former World no. 2 did not feature on the para badminton circuit for over 6 months until the Spanish Para Badminton International Toledo in February this year. But Khanna is confident that Nagar has the ability to overcome the serious circumstances that caused him to step back from the sport for a while.

“He’s a strong boy and he has overcome the things very boldly. It is also right that in the initial tournaments, it was taking time for him to [get back to form], but slowly and gradually he is coming back. Mentally he is stable and now he is [also] getting involved in all training aspects.”

Krishna Nagar is known to jump nearly 3 feet in the air during his matches | Credit: Krishna Nagar

Looking ahead

The introduction of para badminton at Tokyo 2020 sparked a spate of medals for India – the Indian contingent won five in Tokyo and are aiming to sharpen their skills at the Asian Para Games later this year. Indian para badminton is no stranger to success and for a senior of the game, Nagar believes that after competing at two big international events like the Paralympics and Para Asian Games, there is a renewed sense of confidence among the Indian para-shuttlers.

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As the national team’s coach, Khanna also concurred that with the landscape of para badminton changing, the way players trained and devised their game strategies also needed to change.

Mapping out the path to qualification for Paris next year, Khanna said, “The level has increased and the competition level is also more cutthroat now. So, a player has to understand the changing scenario and be more strategic, more intelligent and be more planned in terms of not only the training part but also when they perform in the tournaments. Since we have 13 tournaments and everyone has to be strategic – which tournament they have to go and how they have to perform in order to gain points to qualify for Paris.”

Looking ahead to the Asian Para Games, Nagar indicated that he was focused on working to improve his ranking with a renewed sense of confidence and a firm mentality that he belongs at the top stage. “I am preparing mentally. I was prepared for the Olympics because of my mentality. I can win any game, I can do anything. But if I wish to win, I should have confidence in myself. So I try to rebuild those things. I try to control my emotions and I am also trying to do long rallies. I am working on all these things so I think I will be capable of doing all these things,” he added.

Although it has been only six years since Nagar entered the professional circuit, he has had several accolades to his name. And over the course of the next year, with strategic changes to his game play and a desire to win more, there is a promise for more medals for the shuttler from Rajasthan.