Just over a year ago at the senior national badminton championships in Nagpur, Mithula UK was on a high. The gamble to pair her with Rutuparna Panda had paid dividends as the pair reached the women’s doubles semi-final of the tournament. A couple of months later, it won the junior nationals title and coaches were already planning ways to fast track them to the senior squad.

But Mithula suffered a slight wrist pain around the first week of April last year. It slowed down those plans and threatened to end the 18-year-old’s career for good. Only a surgery and single-minded focus of returning to the badminton court allowed her to pick up the racquet again in December.

On Tuesday, Mithula played her first two competitive matches since April at the senior nationals in Guwahati , pairing with Shlok Ramchandran in the mixed doubles event and the smile of satisfaction on her face was enough to convey what those outings meant to her.

“I was suffering from Avascular necrosis, a condition in which bone tissues die due to interruption of blood supply. So I had to undergo a surgery to remove those damaged tissues and a different vein was connected to restore blood supply,” said Mithula after the pair won both their matches in straight games.

“The injury isn’t common in badminton players and there has been only one reported case of a badminton player,” she said.

It took almost three months for doctors to diagnose her condition as she was initially only advised rest for a few weeks. But every time she would start training, the pain would resurface and get progressively worse.

During that time, the coaches paired Panda with Aarti Sara Sunil and the pair even made it to the Indian team for the Asian Games and it wasn’t clear who Mithula would pair with once she returned.

It was then that she visited Dr Sudhir Warrier in Mumbai, who diagnosed her problem and even suggested that the 18-year-old should consider looking for an alternate career and manage the condition without surgery.

“But that was never an option for me. I gave up academics to concentrate on making a career in badminton and I never wanted to give up,” said Mithula, whose entire family shifted to Hyderabad from Bengaluru in 2017 for her badminton career.

“I still don’t know whether I have recovered completely from that condition and what will happen tomorrow. I am still under observation and will visit the doctor immediately after the tournament for check up,” she added.

The 18-year-old, who has won the girls doubles national title in all age groups and the U-19 mixed doubles title, still doesn’t have the full range of movement in her wrist and knows well that her recovery will never be 100%. She will have to play with the pain for the rest of her life.

“I am aware of the challenges but I am just 18 and I don’t want to give up,” said Mithula, who decided to play the Nationals on the last day of the entry deadline and managed to get an invite through her employers Air India.

Mithula admits that staying positive during that phase was difficult but she managed to keep herself occupied with studies and other training activities. “But the biggest support system was [Pullela] Gopi [chand] sir. He kept giving me the confidence that I can come back from the surgery and play. He had a major surgery himself and he helped me with mental and physical preparation,” she added.

For now, Mithula isn’t looking far beyond the senior nationals and is most likely to stick to mixed doubles for the time being, as she needs to manage her workload till the doctors are confident that the injury is completely healed and will not resurface.

But the 18-year-old is sure about one thing. She won’t quit till appearing on court gives her a reason to smile and fight.