At the French Open in October this year, P Kashyap was heard telling Saina Nehwal to concede the match against Tai Tzu Ying. This happened after Nehwal told him about the pressure she felt when she was leading 20-16 against the world No 1 but ended up losing the opening game of the quarterfinal encounter.

Bring up that topic with the duo now and Kashyap feigns ignorance, while Nehwal doesn’t let him hear the end of it till the former throws up his arms in exasperation and jokingly threatens to walk away from the conversation.

Typical husband-wife banter, you could say.

The Saina-Kashyap romance bloomed in and around badminton courts and given how much the sport dominates their lives and daily routines, even the banter revolves around what they do or don’t on that court.

So when Kashyap speaks about how Nehwal has been competitive since they started playing together as teenagers, the latter butts in to say that he hardly gives her 5-6 points when they play games against each other in training.

Evolution of the relationship

Behind all that banter, there is a clear understanding about the value they bring to each other’s life and how it has contributed in making them better shuttlers.

During the initial years they would generally talk about what they should be doing during matches, help each other to warm up or feed shuttles during training. But in the last six months, Kashyap has started taking an additional session for Nehwal whenever she is in Hyderabad. She, on the other hand, has been a big help to Kashyap emotionally as he coped with injuries for the last two years.

“We used to be concerned about each other’s results from the start. Initially it was very competitive, very childish. May be from her side... I saw that in her very late (during 2010 CWG) that she was actually getting irritated at my losing. She would get angry like my mom,” says Kashyap in an interaction with Scroll.

“She would only tell me that you have to work hard. If I am getting carried away with friends and other things, she would tell me to stay focused and work hard.”

Natural progression

While the conversations always revolved around badminton and career goals, they admit that they never realised how and when a relationship developed. “It just happened,” says Nehwal. “Thoda to logon ka bhi asar tha (I think the way everyone spoke around also contributed). We used to be so easy with each other that people started saying that you are in a relationship.”

Kashyap seconded. “We were always discussing training, how to win. We rarely discussed about going out. It was very secondary for us. Badminton was the primary thing. We are comfortable with each other.

“I remember long back when we were chatting and chatting. [My friends group] thought we were girlfriend — boyfriend. We just said haan, hain to hain (yes we are),” he added.

Though the courtship was an open secret in the badminton circuit, both Nehwal and Kashyap managed to keep it under wraps in social circles. They never wanted it to become a talking point ahead of their careers and preferred to not talk about it.

Even during the last edition of the Premier Badminton League when this reporter asked them about future plans, the answers all revolved around badminton. “We had many reasons to avoid this topic (relationship). But we didn’t have one reason to say ‘no’ once we decided. Every time we used to talk about it (marriage) and then the thought is gone because there is some tournament... out of the blue we thought how about December and it worked out,” explains Kashyap.

They initially wanted the wedding to be a low key affair but given their social standing, it turned out to be a grand celebration with around 3000 people attending the reception. That was followed by a traditional wedding ceremony. “It (the function) was fun. But now the focus is back on badminton,” they add as they sit together in the jerseys of North Eastern Warriors and Chennai Smashers, the two teams they are representing in this season of PBL.

Coach Kashyap

The major change in their life was Kashyap taking over the coaching responsibilities soon after the World Championship this year.

“Most of the things in my life happened. It’s not like I have planned it. It just happened. I didn’t ask his help. But he came ahead and said ‘I will help you out’.

“I think he got frustrated with my result in the world championship. I didn’t tell him to help me. He was injured, had back pain. He said worst performance ever. I never saw you play like this. I think I lost one game on 6 against (Carolina) Marin,” Nehwal says.

While Marin dominated everyone she played in Nanjing to clinch her third world title, Kashyap felt that Nehwal needed to do something special if she wanted to compete at her high level. “I told her also, I was very happy that she got a bashing. For a long time I was telling her that her movements were a little off. Her attitude towards her game was a little off. Initially the way she used to approach the game and how she was doing things now were a little off.”

Since then Kashyap started taking one full training session in which they especially worked on her lunges on the forehand.

When they first discussed the issue with Pullela Gopichand, the coach was worried about potential injury to Nehwal but even she was determined to try something new in order to find that winning touch.

“I said I will happily take the injury but I want my game to change. Injury can get better within two-three months but this will have to change,” says Nehwal.

“I never had the opportunity to think about what was going wrong about my game. He had time to sit and watch. I was always dictated by other people. I was also comfortable with the thought that everything is fine. But when I saw my matches, I could feel that something was off,” she adds.

“I never thought he will be so strong on court, coach attitude. Thodasa aggressive huen, thoda rona aya (Things got a big aggressive. I felt like crying). I felt bad. But he said, ‘I used to think you are very good on court, very disciplined but you are not.’

“It pinched me. But it has helped. I could see the change happening in Asian Games, Denmark, Korea Open,” she adds.

Going forward

Explaining his approach, Kashyap says, “it was difficult to unlearn and change. She also needed some new perspective.”

Injuries continue to trouble Nehwal. She is nursing shin pain that forced her to sit out of the opening match of PBL’s fourth season but both are trying to figure out the ways to continue this new coach-player relationship as they also concentrate on their own careers and family life.

Kashyap has slid down in world ranking and that would mean that they may not be participating in the same tournaments.

Both Kashyap and Nehwal know that life, just like badminton, isn’t always smooth sailing. They have seen the ups and downs first in 2011 when they had their first tiff with Gopichand, and then balancing their career and life when Nehwal moved to Bengaluru in 2014.

They haven’t even got the time to move in together in their own house yet as they had to immediately join their respective PBL teams and would do so sometime in February once they are done with a few other tournaments.

But for both, the focus would remain on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and amidst all familial responsibilities, their lives will, as it always has, revolve around the badminton court.