The badminton hall at the Siri Fort Complex is buzzing. Shuttles float in the air, with intermittent echoes of hysterical laughter amidst loud chattering. All six courts are occupied with players getting one final feel of the venue before the main rounds of the India Open begin Wednesday. The Japanese, Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans and the Danish are all there. So is Saina Nehwal, among the first to be there for practice. By the time she steps off the court, nearly two-and-a-half hours later, everyone else except the three Danish boys and a few autograph – rather, selfie – hunters have left.
It’s been a long and strenuous session. But Saina and her coach Vimal Kumar leave content – Vimal with a broad smile and Saina looking slightly pensive initially but then grinning when prompted by her mother from the stands.
According to Vimal, this is the fittest his ward has been since the World Championship last August. The intervening period has seen Saina go through what, by her admission, has been the ‘most challenging phase of her career’ – an Achilles tendon injury that threatened to lay her low for a long period and loss in confidence.
Finally, after several months of rehab and playing through pain, she finally feels confident about her fitness. But the lingering doubt that a major injury leaves on an athletes’ psychology still persists. “Those were really tough 3-4 months. I have come out of it and is recovering well. I never thought I would get that injury – Achilles tendinitis. I also had some issues with my shin and then had two other injuries in my lower abdomen so it has been the most challenging time of my career,” Saina says, adding that the shin injury was close to being a stress fracture, which would have ruled her out for around four months.
Quite literally, she has been walking wounded – on court and even off it. Saina says she played through extreme pain during the China Open (where she reached the final) in November and the World Superseries Finals in Dubai. By the time the Premier Badminton League came in January, physios pointed out that the strength of her Achilles was to play just two matches.
Vimal concedes they perhaps ‘pushed too much’ for the few months after the World Championship, which aggravated the injury. Apart from injury-specific strength and conditioning exercises, Saina also underwent an electric shock therapy known as electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) to strengthen her muscles. “It’s a new sport-specific treatment, which is available but you seldom use because it can soften the tissues if overdone. She had five sittings of that in February, which did expedite the recovery process,” Vimal says.
The pain reduced immediately and considerably. Although Saina played a lot without pain at the All England Championships. Her movements were rusty and doubts started creeping in over shot selection and execution.There was also a concern that the injury would relapse if she puts extra pressure on her right leg.
Meanwhile, World champion and top seed Carolina Marin withdrew from the Inda Open along with Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, who also has been in good form recently.