The number of Saina Nehwal obituaries that were written in the immediate aftermath of her Rio Olympics debacle and the struggle to make a comeback thereafter, one would have thought that the 27-year-old was already over the hill and was just too stubborn to not call it a day. Yet, here we are, a year down the line where she is the bronze medallist at the BWF World Championships.
It is no secret that even Nehwal feared that her career was all over after the knee injury and the surgery that followed as she struggled to even stand on her feet for a few weeks and the pain was so excruciating that she would cry through the night at times.
But then stubbornness, or rather single-mindedness, is a quality that the first Indian shuttler to wear a world junior crown, win Superseries titles and also an Olympic medal wears as a medal on her chest. And those who have followed her career since the 27-year-old was a stocky teenager with a boy cut would vouch for the fact that it was this Arjuna-like quality to just keep concentrating on the eye of the fish that has seen her achieve all the success she has.
Even Pullela Gopichand, the man who shaped her career till she decided to move to Bangalore and train with Vimal Kumar, cannot stop gushing about the ability of his former ward to shut herself up from all distractions and just concentrate on the job at hand.
“Saina is unique in that way. Unlike all the other players, she can isolate herself from every distraction and just concentrate on her job during training a tournament,” he tells The Field during the BWF World Championship in Glasgow.
The world number 16 did just that as she prepared for the World Championship at her base in Bangalore. For the past two months since her loss to China’s Sun Yu in the Australia Superseries, the 27-year-old put her head down, cut most of her social engagements and just focused on her preparations.
Even after coming to Glasgow, while the other team members were seen relaxing around a bit after training sessions by visiting the Celtic Park stadium or playing a game of table tennis, she would return to the hotel by the next transport available.
“You don’t have to look in the aspect of discipline or motivate her to work hard. That comes naturally to her,” says Vimal Kumar, who has been coaching her for the last three years.
The duo have seen quite high and lows in those years, with Nehwal reaching the pinnacle of the world ranking in 2015 before the knee injury a week before Rio Olympics simply shattered her. When the pain first started, it was diagnosed as a fat pad inflammation and the 27-year-old even took a Cortisone injection to take care of the pain and play in the Games.
In hindsight, she says she should not have gone to Rio with the kind of injury she had but wasn’t aware of its extent when she went to Brazil.
It was only after returning from Rio that she found out that a bone in the knee was broken and had to undergo a surgery and a four month rehab before returning to the court.
While the coaching staff and trainers wanted her to rest a little longer, Nehwal was herself keen to return to the court faster and when she lifted the Malaysia Grand Prix Gold title it looked like she would soon be back to her best.
However, the overall fitness needed a lot of work after such a long break and Nehwal actually had to be told to slow down rather than just push herself beyond the required limit.
But that his now she has always been. She always wants to ensure that nothing is left to chance because she did not give her best effort.
One of a kind
There is a story that the players and coaches who were part of the Indian squad for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne would narrate with pride. It was the first major event for the then 16-year-old to and with experienced Aparna Popat expected to play in the mixed team championship, Gopichand had given her a fitness regime to follow.
But the way things panned out, Popat was ruled out of the event due to injury and Vimal Kumar, who was then the chief national coach, decided to blood her in for women’s singles matches. And despite playing the matches, Nehwal continued to also complete the workout regimen given to her.
It has been no different over the years and to Nehwal’s credit she is probably the only women’s singles player on the international circuit to have a five to six-year run without any major injury. While a lot of credit goes to her coaches and the training staff for their effort in keeping her fit, one cannot deny the role of the physical and mental stability of the 2010 Commonwealth Games champion that has contributed to the same.
It is no secret that Nehwal probably isn’t the most talented shuttler on the international circuit in terms of stroke play. In fact, she herself has said in the past that she tends to forget the strokes if she doesn’t practice them regularly.
But the 27-year-old, who is currently the oldest women’s singles player in the top 20, more than makes up for that with the amount of effort she puts in during every practice session and the discipline she shows on and off the court.
Pay off in Glasgow
All those efforts bore fruit in Glasgow where she once again announced her arrival on the big stage with a bronze medal when there was hardly any expectations from her.
As she gets older, injury-induced breaks will become a part and parcel of her career and that is why she has started working on few deceptions and variety of strokes to stay ahead of her much younger competitors.
But ask her whether it was the age difference that allowed Nozomi Okuhara (22) to recover better than her before the World Championship semi-final and turn the tables and Nehwal dismisses the idea. “No, it has nothing to do with age. If that was the case, Lin Dan is already 35 and still winning. She played really well today but I am happy to have won a medal here and I am ready for bigger challenges.”
And there is no doubt that she will give more than 100 per cent in training and competition till those weary knees and tired limbs don’t give up.