“Keep your hand at the level of the white line [at the top] of the net.”

“You should have hit it cross-court.”

“Half-court! Don’t smash it long.”

It has been more than 20 years since Usha Rani last played badminton professionally, for Haryana, but that hardly stops her from advising her daughter when she is training with her coach. It doesn’t matter that her daughter is Saina Nehwal, a former world No 1 in the sport.

Rani can’t stop mimicking a badminton stroke with her playing hand while her daughter is practising her strokes. “Hit it like this,” she says, swiveling her right arm at a particular angle, when Nehwal’s smash goes long. “You didn’t even try to lift it,” she says in an irritated tone, when her daughter fails to clear a drop shot.

Chances are, Nehwal can’t even hear her mother most of the time, since Rani’s voice is not particularly loud and nearly inaudible if you are more than 10 feet away from her. Maybe she doesn’t really want to be heard, considering her daughter is one of the best in the world in what she does. Maybe Rani just misses being on court.

Rani is also extremely protective of her 27-year-old daughter, who is currently training at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bengaluru under the watchful eyes of former India coach Vimal Kumar. “Please don’t take photos when she is playing,” Rani requests me politely, when I attempt to take a few snaps of the London Olympics bronze medallist.

Rani is also a perfectionist. “What was the score?” she asks a junior player at the academy who was asked to play a 40-point game against Nehwal. When the 17-year-old N Sriram tells her it was 40-34 in his favour, she has an expression of shock on her face. “Mummy would be most upset when I lost a match,” Nehwal had written in her autobiography Playing To Win. “She would be very angry and I would feel terrible for disappointing her.” This was during her age-group playing days. Clearly, nothing has changed since.

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Unlike her mother, Nehwal keeps a poker face throughout the three 40-point games she plays against the academy boys. She hardly displays any emotions despite losing more points than she has won against boys who are 10 years her junior. “Finally!” she exclaims, after one of her shots hits the top of the net and the shuttle just about tips over to drop on her opponent’s side. Her net-game is still some way from its peak, as are her smashes.

Long road back

Nehwal is on a long road back to the peak of her game, which she had achieved in 2015 when she briefly became the world’s top-ranked player. Her career has been blighted with injuries since, the biggest of which was a career-threatening one to her knee, around the time of the 2016 Rio Olympics. At the Games, Nehwal was clearly struggling with her movement, and it wasn’t surprising when she lost her second group-stage match in straight games to the world No 61 at the time, Maria Ulitina.

Nehwal underwent a knee surgery following the Olympics, which forced her to sit out of a majority of the tournaments in the second half of last season. Since her comeback late last year, she has not made it past the quarter-finals of any of the five Superseries tournaments she has played. She won the Malaysia Masters Grand Prix Gold tournament in January this year, but exited early at the All England Open, the India Open and the Malaysia Open Superseries events, as well as the Badminton Asia Championships.

Nehwal’s team, however, is not worried about the results as long as the process is right. “I keep telling her – you are doing the right thing,” says Vimal Kumar, who first started coaching Nehwal when she was nine years old. “It’s just a matter of confidence. She has lost out on some close matches. It was very tough for her. But we have to keep motivating them and turn things around. As long as they put in that effort, their enthusiasm is there, they will find their way back.”

Kumar, who is a co-founder of the Padukone academy, has been working with Nehwal continuously for the last three years. Between 2003 and 2014, Nehwal trained in former All England Open champion Pullela Gopichand’s academy in Hyderabad. However, she switched camps to join Kumar in September 2014.

It was Kumar who had given Nehwal her first break internationally when he was India coach for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. When India’s top singles player at the time, Aparna Popat, got injured just before the Games began, Nehwal, who was just 16 years old and a stand-by, went up to Kumar and asked if she could play the singles. Kumar agreed to take the risk, and Nehwal ended up reaching the quarter-finals.

Saina Nehwal (right) trains at the Prakash Padukone Academy under the watchful eyes of coach Vimal Kumar (left). Image credit: Jaideep Vaidya

Four years later, Nehwal would win the gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, held in New Delhi, but that was under Gopichand’s tutelage. She would also win a bronze at the 2012 London Olympics, along with two Super Series and as many Grand Prix Gold titles that season, which saw her end the year ranked No 3 in the world.

However, Nehwal underwent a dip, did not win a single title in 2013, and ranking fell as low as No 9 in January 2014. She announced her split with Gopichand in September that year. Training under Kumar, she then reached the top of the world rankings for four weeks in 2015, before ending the year in second place.

Working on the basics

In 2016, however, Nehwal experienced a slump similar to 2013, with injuries further pegging her down. Now on the road back to the top, Kumar wants Nehwal to function the same way as she did when she moved to Bengaluru three years ago.

“I’ve told her that when you came to Bangalore [three years ago], you were in a similar situation,” he says. “You were down in the world rankings, not winning. Then, you got to No 1. Go with the same procedure – work on the basics.”

But when you are coaching a former world No 1, it is sometimes difficult to make them accept that they are not at the top of their game anymore. It is very natural for top-level sportspersons to not accept the fact that they have gone down, says Kumar, since they are very strong personalities and cannot take adversity. “Some of the top athletes give up [when they go down], but Saina I’ve noticed is very persistent,” he adds. “Mentally, she is a very tough girl.”

Kumar is trying to get Nehwal to go back to her basics. “Now, what I keep telling her is – when you’re going through these difficulties, you cannot think you’re still the best player,” he says. “When things go wrong, go back to your basics. Once you do that, you can always find your way back because you have the experience.”

It has now been seven months since Nehwal returned to the international badminton circuit following her surgery. However, the 27-year-old is still having trouble with the physical aspect of the sport. “Whenever she reaches a good level, she is not able to sustain it,” says Kumar. “Her training programme is quite intense. When you are really punishing your body day in and day out, you are bound to get injured. But we are addressing these are things.”

Nehwal’s on-court training sessions at the Padukone academy usually last for around two hours a day. She trains with Kumar and fellow coach Umendra Rana, sometimes facing both of them in tandem. She also plays 40-point games against the best of the academy’s young prospects. Her sessions leave her exhausted by the end, and this is where her physio, Arvind Nigam, steps in.

Before Nehwal gets on to court, Nigam straps her operated knee in a bandage and gives her legs a massage. After the court session is over, he gives her a full-body massage that lasts for at least 30 minutes. If it is a stressful job to look after the fragile body of an athlete who has the nation’s hopes pinned on her, Nigam doesn’t show it.

“The rehabilitation is going pretty well,” he says. “The pain in the knee is almost negligible now and she is very much faster on the courts [than earlier] as well, even while she is lunging forward or smashing. It is getting better. She is putting in a lot of effort. We are trying more and more to make her gain good strength.”

Along with regaining her physical strength, Nehwal has also had to work on her mental toughness following the career-threatening injury. In December last year, a month after her return to the circuit, Nehwal had hinted that retirement had crossed her mind.

Five months later, though, she is still playing, even if not as many tournaments as she used to. But for her to get over the mental impact of her injury, she needs to play a lot more matches, according to Nigam.

“I would say she has the capability to be world No 1 again, but she needs more match exposure,” he says. “Ultimately, when you have an injury, there is a mental impact on you as well. You think of your limitations and weaknesses. To overcome all of this, you need to play matches, win them and get motivation from them. That’s why we are focusing on her playing more and more tournaments.”

Change in approach

Nehwal will be playing three back-to-back tournaments in the next month, starting with the Thailand Open Grand Prix Gold, followed by the Indonesia Open Superseries and the Australian Open Superseries. Her plans for the rest of the season, however, are still not clear.

“It depends on her capacity,” says Nigam. “It’s not like she is 20-22. She is now at the age of 26-27. She needs to plan out [her season] mentally and physically. It’s like how Roger Federer is picking his tournaments. It’s about working it out the same way for Saina as well. She tells me, ‘I need to play these tournaments.’ Accordingly, we plan out how she goes about it.”

Saina Nehwal’s restricted movement since her surgery has led to a change in her approach while playing (Image credit: IANS)

The comparison with the 35-year-old Roger Federer might seem ridiculous, but then there aren’t too many shuttlers in the world playing at the highest level into their thirties, given the physically demanding and intense nature of the sport. Considering the nature of Nehwal’s injury, it’s hard to imagine her playing beyond the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 at the most.

Nehwal’s restricted movement since her surgery has also led to a change in her approach to games. While she was known for wearing her opponents down before going for the kill in her heyday, she is now going for a lot more smashes in a bid to end points quickly.

“She has brought a variation in her game,” says Kumar, adding that it wasn’t an easy process. “Once you have picked up some things in a particular way, it is difficult to change. But we are trying to make her think for herself and apply herself more, not depend too much on the coaches, make her a little more independent. I keep telling her she has to be like a professional tennis player. They have coaches, but they also have their own inputs and they take charge of their own training.”

If watching one of her on-court training sessions is anything to go by, Nehwal is still a long way from being independent. But perhaps that’s not on top of her priority list right now. Nor is Tokyo 2020. For now, she has Thailand in her sights, where she is the second seed after world No 9 Ratchanok Intanon.

One step at a time.