In the opening leg of the fifth season of the Premier Badminton League in Chennai, there was an interesting match-up on Wednesday. Two former top 10 players, two players currently in the top 25, two players in their thirties were meeting after a gap of nearly eight years. When Indonesia’s Tommy Sugiarto (Chennai Superstarz) took on India’s Parupalli Kashyap (Mumbai Rockets), it was a throwback to the early 2010s in men’s singles. With both men in good form on the circuit, the match turned out to be a gripping one too. Kashyap laid down the marker early before Sugiarto stormed back to make sure his side’s gamble of making this the trump match did not backfire.

At the end of the three-game affair, both players looked understandably tired but the quality of some of the rallies that preceded the final handshake was proof enough that there is still some gas left in their tanks.

“I was feeling good physically, actually, after a long time, so I’m feeling happy about that,” Kashyap said after the match. “But I need to figure out my game and you know, work on my transition to attack and defense. I think I can play a little more patiently. So let’s see how I’m feeling in the next few matches. I showed I could play a more intense match.”

Wednesday was not quite a day to cherish in the Kashyap household as Saina Nehwal had earlier lost in the opening round at Thailand Masters. Not one to take losses easily, it took a while for Kashyap to recover from his defeat and meet with the media late in Chennai. But the 33-year-old was at his eloquent best when talking about his game, coming back to the sport after almost quitting and re-entering the top 25, his thoughts about Olympics, and why Indian shuttlers seem to be struggling at the moment.

Excerpts from the interaction:

Question: Two veterans playing after 8 years. Just tells you how long you have been at it. What keeps you going?

Kashyap Parupalli: I am enjoying these moments. Earlier when I used to lose, I used to go back to training and work my ass off. I used to train, train and train and kill myself. Now that’s not the point. Right now, there is no one there to tell me how to go about my regime. Gopi sir is also limited with his input right now but no one in India has, in the past, played at this level at 33 or 34, so there is no blueprint for me, I figure out my own plans. I have to enjoy this, my attitude after these matches has changed. I lost the match today and I cannot take it but I am able to come out and speak now, understand what I did, assess my game. I want to get better, prove a point and see where I can go, without setting any particular goals. Top 25 was a goal when I kept sliding up and down the rankings recently. Now I have to push a little more. During PBL, I want to get confidence from the matches, get fitter for the next set of tournaments. All England is a big target and at this stage, I have nothing to lose.

In your years of playing the sport, what is now the biggest change you have seen in men’s and singles?

It has become an endurance-based sport. It is not like shot-makers are thriving. Everyone’s defence has improved. It is now totally a stamina-based sport. And that is where Indians struggle. The lack of off-seasons has been a massive impact on the sport. And those tough choices are not being made [for Indian players currently] during Olympic qualification. No one is able to think ‘I will skip four tournaments, train more and come back’ and that comes only with a deep sporting culture. We tend to do look at things emotionally.

What are the expectations of yourself as a player currently?

Right now, I just want to improve my game. The last three years have been a struggle for me, body-wise. I’ve just kept on getting injured or physically struggled... some niggles and pains which were like, making me back off from training. I was not able to train 100% and I know that my level is going to be around about the top 30 to 45 range unless I push. So last six months, I would say was I was a little better and that’s why I could push in the rankings reached the top 25. Lost close matches say at the end of the year; should have won in Hong Kong against Chou Tien Chen and then a couple of other matches against Ginting.

I was targeting a period of December where I can push myself and I just had another injury and this was like stupid, I just fell down and twisted my toe. Luckily there was not a fracture, but I had to stop another two weeks for it and then I missed another three-week period. But anyway, I’m getting into form right now and I’m playing well so this is a good opportunity for me; good matches in a team event. I think I’m only going to get better.

Is Olympic qualification on your mind?

Frankly, I’ve been saying it since last year; I think said it at India Open also. Just qualifying for the Olympics is not going to excite me anymore. I have to reach a level for where, you know, I can contend for the medal and that’s the only thing which is going to excite. me. Not just me, all men’s singles shuttlers should aim for that.

During Olympics preparation, everyone feels the pressure and I would say I have an advantage in that I’ve already played the Olympics and have played well in the Olympics to reach the quarter-finals. Back of my mind, I was really upset that I missed Rio because I was in the top 10 at that time and I fell down and I got injured but yeah, but that’s past and I just want to get into shape. I feel I belong to the top 15 and top 10 right now, but I’ll have to get those results.

Qualifying for the Olympics is not my aim here. I just want to improve my game right now because two years back, I was not even thinking about it. I was thinking of quitting. Last year when I was getting injured all the time, I was seriously thinking of giving up. I had to really think if I want to play this sport or just want to do something else. But I just got some more confidence in me and I want to enjoy the sport, that’s part of why I was able to put in some good performances. Let’s see how it goes.

Were you tempted to take part in Thailand Open (that started on Tuesday) with Olympic qualification points at stake?

No temptations. That was never part of the plan. Anyway, there are 10-12 tournaments coming up and I need this break. During PBL I can have a good training session with the players who are there in the team. It’s a different environment and you have different sparring players. Physically I’m not there. I don’t think I can ever play three tournaments back-to-back at this stage of my career.

Why are Indian shuttlers struggling recently at the international level?

I feel like they’re probably under pressure a little bit and it happens, even my 2012 Olympics qualification was a mess. I had to really dig deep and get really lucky sometimes. 2016 was more straightforward. Srikanth and I were ahead of everyone. We were in the top eight of the world and then I got injured, I had to drop in the rankings. But that buffer was there. This time it has gotten a little tight.

For Srikanth, in 2018 he played quarters and semis in most tournaments and in 2019 he had to defend all those points. So it’s got a little tough for them and pressure is adding. Sai, this time has done well and has that extra buffer. He can back off, train and you know, plan his preparations. But the rest of them are going to rush into tournaments and they don’t have options right now. They were just getting injured. I think Srikanth has been unlucky in getting injured. And Prannoy, at a crucial time, he got dengue. And he had to miss a couple of tournaments. I mean, training, he absolutely could not do anything and was very critical. I don’t know what they have done in training because I was training a little different from everyone. I guess you’ll have to ask them what went wrong and how did they get injured? It is a tough physical sport. We as Indians, I think we’ll have to work really, really hard on our fitness.

On the BWF calendar...

That is where you know, the BWF calendar is also pretty messed up. For example, after the Olympic qualification started, there was [a Super 300 event] in New Zealand. And then there was a month’s rest followed by an event in Australia. It was ridiculous. Someone has to be going all the way down to New Zealand, getting back home again, going after three weeks to Australia! So that was ridiculous. Two months, there were only two tournaments and suddenly there were six tournaments on the trot. It’s too much on the players.

If someone has a buffer and they’re already like, at a good level, they can probably pick and choose but if you’re on the borderline, then you have to play all the events. At the end of the year, even Saina faced this as well because she had issues with her stomach, she was getting injured; she could not back off from events because they were looking for a couple of wins here and there but could not. The calendar is really tough.

Even now, after Thailand there is a gap followed by Spain, Germany, All England, Swiss, India, Malaysia, Singapore. How does one choose from this!

Barcelona Spain Masters 2020
2/18/2020 to 2/23/2020
HSBC BWF World Tour Super 300

YONEX German Open 2020
3/3/2020 to 3/8/2020
HSBC BWF World Tour Super 300

YONEX All England Open 2020
3/11/2020 to 3/15/2020
HSBC BWF World Tour Super 1000

YONEX Swiss Open 2020
3/17/2020 to 3/22/2020
HSBC BWF World Tour Super 300

YONEX-SUNRISE India Open 2020
3/24/2020 to 3/29/2020
HSBC BWF World Tour Super 500

CELCOM AXIATA Malaysia Open 2020
3/31/2020 to 4/5/2020
HSBC BWF World Tour Super 750

Singapore Open 2020
4/7/2020 to 4/12/2020
HSBC BWF World Tour Super 500

— Upcoming BWF Super-300 plus touraments

You said you almost quit the sport. What was the turning point for you, then, to make a comeback?

Do I want to this or not, do I enjoy training or not. I was really pissed off. But when I have a day or two without any badminton and then you start missing the game. That is where I get the motivation. I did well in Canada (reached the final) and then I got injured immediately in the final and US I could not play. And then later I made the semi-finals of Korea [played Kento Momota], so I think probably Korea Open was the tournament I thought I still got it. But that’s the thing, that 5% extra you need to challenge the top players... that is where the body’s breaking. I was already a little tired coming into that match but I had a chance to push my endurance. I had some rest before Malaysia this year and I was able to match Momota longer.

Finally, how does one beat Momota?

With my game style, I would say, if he’s 100%, then I have to be at least 80% of his fitness, and then I can probably use my experience and a couple of shots – my net game is a little better I would say but I would have to match him physically. He’s really confident and I think he is the fittest in the sport right now. And he has good shots, supple wrists as well. So that’s a deadly combination in this circuit, especially in an endurance sport.