Ruthvika Gadde determined to make up lost ground next season despite injury setbacks

Over the past five years, Gadde, once considered one of the best in the country, has struggled to find consistency, with injury or illness thwarting her momentum.

Indian badminton player Ruthvika Shivani Gadde in action.

Indian badminton player Ruthvika Shivani Gadde in action. | Photo Credit: AFP

Over the past five years, Gadde, once considered one of the best in the country, has struggled to find consistency, with injury or illness thwarting her momentum.

Ruthvika Shivani Gadde was almost there. Last Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, she was leading in the back end of deciding game against Indonesia’s Yulia Susanto in the semifinals of the Malaysia International Challenge, a BWF event. She was within touching distance of the final and a chance to win her first tournament in four years.

It was not to be.

As she went for a shot, Gadde landed poorly on her right foot and twisted her ankle. She tried to play on but finally forfeited the match while trailing 16-17. Over the next few days, Gadde will try to ascertain the extent of the damage.

Unfortunately for Gadde, this has been the story of much of her career. Over the past five years, Gadde, once considered one of the best in the country, has struggled to find consistency, with injury or illness thwarting her momentum. Back in 2015, she was struck with a bout of hepatitis that kept her out for a few months. A serious knee injury followed in 2017. In 2018, though, she suffered her most serious jolt when a misdiagnosed tear in her spinal disc forced her out of the court for nearly a year. On her return, she was struck with dengue fever even as the rest of the season was cut short because of the COVID pandemic. A frozen shoulder injury postponed an already delayed comeback. Indeed 2022 was Gadde’s longest season in four years. And this has been a curtailed one – before her ankle sprain last week, she suffered a bout of COVID in the middle of the year.

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Such a recurrent series of injuries would probably sap anyone. Before she suffered her first serious illness in 2015, Gadde had been crowned women’s singles champion at the Vijaywada nationals. A year later, she would beat the future world champion, PV Sindhu, in the final of the South Asian Games. Gadde remains the last Indian player apart from Saina Nehwal to have beaten the two-time Olympic medallist.  At 5 feet 8 inches and blessed with reach, power and touch, Gadde looked like the complete package. Yet having broken into the top 50 of the world rankings not long after that win over Sindhu, she tumbled into the low 400s over the next three years.

In her latest comeback, Gadde is happy looking on the bright side of things. “I’ve been working on my rehab for so long. I was working to recover from my frozen shoulder from January to May this year. Once I came back, I wasn’t sure if I could compete at the pace of competitive badminton. But after playing a few matches, I got more confidence,” says Gadde, who has a record of 26-13 this year. “We started working a little more. I played in a few international tournaments, and I’m happy with where I’m. After playing nearly nothing for three years and dealing with all the mental stress and injuries, I felt a little proud. I also had COVID and blisters on my feet after my return which complicated things. I shouldn’t say it’s great, but it’s a good comeback,” she says.

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It wasn’t always like this. Gadde recalls how she went into a shell between 2018 and 2019 after she picked up a back injury while competing in the Indian mixed team that won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. “I’m a very relaxed, outgoing person. But during that first break, I didn’t want to be around anyone, especially those I was playing and practising with. I didn’t feel like meeting people. I didn’t want to go to birthday parties or functions. Because when people ask you, ‘how are you feeling?’ ‘how is your injury?’ I didn’t feel like facing them. I didn’t feel like answering. I felt embarrassed about everything,” she says.

Help came from her family and coaches. “My dad Bhawani Prasad has always supported me. He is a real badminton lover. I got into the sport because of him. So when I was injured, he was the one who kept me motivated. He would write down a diary of all my rehab exercises and schedule,” she says.

Pullela Gopichand, at whose academy in Hyderabad, Gadde has been training since she was 15, backed her. “Gopichand sir also had many injuries in his career. So perhaps that’s why he was so understanding. He knows how much a player is struggling to get back on the court. He keeps motivating me. When I was injured, he said not to come and sit and watch badminton. He said ‘go to the gym and go home’. He said if an athlete is injured, they see others play, and they want to play as well. Just go back home. I didn’t understand back then, ‘you feel bad that you are the odd one out’,” she says.

Despite the support, the road to recovery hasn’t been smooth. There are good days and bad ones. Gadde admits feeling bursts of rage at the unfairness of her predicament. “Are there times when it gets too much, and you want to give up? Sure. It comes like a moment of anger, and then it goes. I might have just finished a rehab session. I’m starting to get a little bit of confidence, and just when I start training, I might feel some small pain in the same part of my body. And it will just boil over. I will be thinking, ‘what is this crap? ‘Why am I getting this pain? I’ve done everything that I was supposed to do. That’s the moment my brain starts getting negative thoughts,” she says.

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It disappears just as quickly, she insists. For the most part, Gadde says she tries not to think too much about the past. “I don’t know whether to say I was unfortunate (that I had all these injuries) or if that easy road just wasn’t meant for me. The only thing in my control is to carry on as best I can,” she says.

Gadde’s time off competitive badminton has been frustrating, but she sees the silver lining as well. “If anything, this period has made me mentally very strong. When I first picked up an injury, I remember how dejected I was. Now when I get an injury, I don’t waste time feeling bad for myself. I immediately start to think of solutions,” she says. Gadde has also been working on injury-proofing her body, which she hopes will eventually pay off. “Five years ago, I had the height and reach, but now I’m physically a lot stronger,” she says.

She has also made the most of her time in rehab, trying to indulge in activities she never had time for. “In the past, the only thing that mattered was going from one competition to the other. Initially, when I was in rehab, I felt idle because I had all this time to myself. But that gave me the chance to meet and get to know my extended family. I come from a very big family and I never really got a chance to learn about them. I’m now really close to them,” she says.

But her primary focus remains her game and preparing to get back on the court. That’s what Gopichand has told her as well. “Gopi sir only tells me one thing. He says the day when I don’t feel like doing rehab, that’s when you give up,” she says.

As she looks to make her way back to the top-flight sport, things will not be easy. “Because I’m starting from the basics once again, I’m not getting any financial support from the government as I used to when I was part of the national team. So I have to pay for all my expenses myself. It’s tough, but there’s no other way,” she says.

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But she’s finding her way back. Following last week’s performance in Malaysia, she has improved to 68th in the World rankings. “At the start of the year, my best-case goal was to break into the top 50. I’m near that level. Right now, I’m still playing international challengers (the lowest rung of the BWF tournament structure). At my current ranking, I’ll be in a position to compete in the main draws of some bigger tournaments next year. My goal next season is to break back into the top 50 and compete in the All-England and World Championships. I’m not looking for anything beyond that right now,” she says.

All this is challenging in itself, and while a top 50 rank might only bring her back to where she was five years ago, Gadde isn’t disheartened. “In the past, some people thought what was the point of me continuing when I was always getting injured. But I never thought of quitting the sport. I honestly can’t think of doing something else. First of all, I love the sport. I’m not a person who gives up easily. If I can do it, I will try and make it possible. What I’ve learned about myself over the past four or five years is that I am a fighter. I’ll keep fighting,” she says.

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