Shortly after Tereza Svabikova was eliminated in visible pain early in the second game, Saina Nehwal went into her Czech opponent’s half of the field. The Indian was handed a passage to the second round, her first since March last year. But the nature of Svabikova’s back injury intrigued her and she stayed for an empathetic chat. Perhaps her forensic interest in the workings of the athlete’s body stems from patching her own sore spots and holding them for games, tournaments, and years despite the harsh resistance of her limbs.
“I was a little shocked because I’ve never seen a bad back injury in a game before,” Saina told media after the game. “So I just wanted to know how it happened. I played a drop shot on her forehand side and I don’t know if it was a joke but she said she felt something on her back. If she can’t walk, I’m sure it was very serious.”
Saina’s own appeal to trifles was lengthy and agonizing. She’s only reached one semi-final since March 2019, and most of last year has been a spate of first-round disposals. This week’s India Open in New Delhi is her first tournament since October last year. She skipped the World Championships in December for the first time since her debut in 2006.
“There were three issues with my knee at the same time – I tore my cartilage, had an issue with my kneecap,” pausing to put a finger on the third, laughing. “I think there was another one, a meniscus… that’s a big term. My recovery has been really good for the last 3-4 months and I’ve been able to get through the hard training. But one wrong step and I tore my groin. What I didn’t know was that my knee had a major trauma that got really bad at the French Open (October 2021). Everything happened suddenly. Up until this game (eliminated in the first round) it wasn’t that bad. I could at least go up and down the stairs. After that I limped. I couldn’t walk When I did the MRI, the doctor said, “Oh shit, I don’t think you can go to the world championships. Or play until December”. I wanted to play but there wasn’t much that could be done. The doctor isn’t sure if I’ll make a full recovery or not and I wasn’t expecting to play the India Open…but I’ve had a good rehab, been able to train for seven days and now I’m here.”
Saina, whose last Tour title came in January 2019, failed to crack the Tokyo qualifier last year. Around the time of the Olympics, a world away from the churning cauldron, she decided not to spend her time counting regrets, but instead explored a range of things she’d never had before: touring the country, in immerse themselves in history, make a fuss about decorating their new home, and discover Friends for the first time—things they wouldn’t normally think of, let alone do, in an Olympic year.
Although they married in December 2018, the couple only started living together in March of last year. “Until we moved into our new home together, it was all about getting to know each other and being roommates in tournaments,” said her husband and teammate Parupalli Kashyap. “In July we traveled to Delhi and Dharamshala for some work, but when we got there Saina said, ‘I’ve never seen the Taj Mahal!'”. The couple decided to visit the memorial over the weekend as Saina wanted to fly back to Hyderabad and report for Monday’s training session. As luck would have it, Agra went into lockdown over the weekend and suddenly they had two full days and no plans. “We have been to Delhi countless times for the India Open, but it is limited to commuting back and forth between the stadium and the hotel. If we lost early we would go back to Hyderabad and start training so we never really got a chance to explore the city or most other places for that matter sooner.”
Accompanied by an ASI tour guide, the couple explored the remains of the ancient city walls and crumbling Mughal tombs that whetted the appetites of history converts. They added Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur and an extra week to their itinerary and shopped for clothes in Delhi for the trip. “We fell in love with Fort Chittorgarh and listened to the reports of Maharana Pratap Singh like children, completely mesmerized by the stories.”
Saina and Kashyap – aged 31 and 35 and possibly in the final stages of their playing days – both had challenging opponents in their bodies. They’ve known each other for almost as long as they’ve been in the sport, and unsurprisingly, injuries can become dinner talk. Saina officially joined the ruling BJP party in 2020 and she and Kashyap were allotted land by the Himachal Pradesh government to set up an academy.
They recently discovered the couple’s joys in loving the same TV show. “Being together at home all the time is a different experience. Saina is a perfectionist and always recognizes the little things that need fixing around the house,” Kashyap said. “In training we still find space for alone time. She was disappointed after missing Tokyo, but she started training again almost immediately. As an athlete, you have no choice but to keep going.”
Saina knows it well enough. It’s her ability to weather catastrophic stretches and horrific injuries, coming back every time you think she’s done, that’s gotten her through her torrid years. A two-time India Open winner, with her physique now at “60-70 percent”, she’ll be happy to do even a few laps this week. She has competed in two other tournaments in India in the coming weeks, a Super 300 and a Super 100. The ranking points won’t bother her. If your first round clear at the India Open earns you over 2000 points, a deeper run at the relatively unremarkable Odisha Open Super 100 later this month could earn you somewhere between 3000 and 5000 ranking points. A boost in the rankings will also bring friendlier draws. The Commonwealth Games, where she is the defending champion, and the Asian Games are about six months away. Her body needs weekly checkups and doesn’t allow her to plan too far ahead, but she’d certainly want a bye shot for both of them. “When I watch other players’ games, I like to do a training session myself. It gives me the confidence, yes, I can come back. A lot of players get injured. I want to take on the challenge. Let’s see what all the injuries are that can be done with it and come back stronger.”
But any physical rehab comes with a high mental cost, and athletes can stay in the funk for a while. For Saina it was an endless struggle. “It is not easy. I definitely feel like it’s enough, I’m trying too much. Sometimes I want to give up,” she said. “The mental part is tough. Tournaments happen, other players win and I sit and watch them. But it’s okay. It’s a challenge, it’s a struggle. Maybe there are a few good days ahead.”