In October last year, Saina Nehwal dismissed talks of retirement, exuded confidence and stated she was physically fit as she made a return to the court after seven months.
That optimism didn’t last long. The 31-year-old suffered three consecutive first round exits—including two retirements—at the Uber Cup, Denmark Open and French Open. What at first seemed like a regular niggle turned out be a debilitating knee injury—forcing the Olympic bronze medallist to withdraw from a series of tournaments, including the World Championships.
“I tore my cartilage, had issues with patella (kneecap), the meniscus got really irritated… overall the knee went through a lot of trauma and it happened over months. Finally, the stage came where I could not even walk after the French Open,” said Nehwal.
Though not completely fit, Nehwal returned to court on Wednesday after a long rehab, progressing to the second round of a tournament for the first time since March 2021 when she had reached the semi-finals of the Orleans Masters in France. The fourth seed was leading 22-20, 1-0 in her India Open first round when her Czech opponent, Tereza Svabikova, pulled a back muscle and had to be stretchered off. Though rusty, Nehwal displayed some strokes which had once made her a world-beater.
“I am lacking match practice. Otherwise, it is too tough to play at the highest level. Because of the knee injury I wasted a lot of time. But I am happy that I could get back my rally rhythm, that my knee was able to take those difficult lunges,” said the world No.25, who will face compatriot Malvika Bansod on Thursday. “Playing after long does give you match confidence…how to pull out points…because in practice you don’t have that intensity. I hope the quality of points I got today helps me tomorrow.”
Last year, on return from Europe, doctors advised rest and rehabilitation for the two-time World Championship medallist, who had also torn her groin in a “bad slip”.
Unsure whether the knee pain will recede, Nehwal then began strength training for her legs, which eventually allowed her to practice for a few days in the last week of December. “I could not sit back even a day. It was “go” from the start with rehab. I had to go on with good weight training, get it (the leg) fully strong,” said the former world No.1.
Physicality has always been Nehwal’s strongest attribute on court. At peak fitness, she dominated the world’s best, turning into an icon who started the badminton resurgence in India, making the country a force to reckon with on the biggest stage.
Yet it’s her physical health that’s bogged her down in the last couple of years, taking from her the explosive power and strength she was renowned for.
After winning the Indonesia Masters in January 2019, Nehwal’s career spiralled downwards due to multitude of health problems, some of which resulted in extended hospital stays: pancreatitis, chronic acute gastroenteritis and chronic pain in joints, knees, heels and shin.
The pandemic brought another heartbreak—her failure to qualify for what would have been her fourth consecutive Olympics.
In the last two years, Nehwal took part in 11 tournaments, played 19 matches, and won just eight, making six first-round exits.
It is stark testimony to how difficult these years have been for a player who has won medals at the Olympics, world championships, and Asian and Commonwealth Games, not to mention the multiple tour titles along with being the only Indian woman to achieve the rank of world No.1.
At the $ 400,000 India Open, Nehwal is trying to finally put her body to the test and her game back where it belongs.
“I am 60-70 percent good (the knee injury),” she said. “I was not expecting to play India Open at all but I am happy I am here. By January end I plan to get back to full physical fitness. We have one month in February for training for the big events in March so I will get good training time of 4-5 weeks.”
To get to this point has not been easy, but the love for the game, at least for now, trumped the difficulties for Nehwal.
“I am trying so much, sometimes I feel like giving up but I have to thank my friends, (husband and mentor Parupalli) Kashyap and parents,” she said. “All of us like the game. When I watch players playing, I like it. It is always nice to explore areas which I can work on. You just have to keep on exploring yourself. Let’s see how many injuries I can cope with.”