Saina Nehwal on the mend

"I pray to the Almighty that no active player should suffer injuries. It is not easy to fight sports injuries. We have to spend money and also be away from the game that we love the most," says Saina Nehwal.

Saina Nehwal is happy with the way she is shaping up after a knee surgery.   -  G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR

The champion badminton player is back to winning ways! Saina Nehwal, the London Olympics bronze medallist, served a warning, literally, to the other badminton players by kicking off her campaign in 2017 with the Malaysian Open women’s singles title. The 26-year-old Saina, who has won more Super Series titles than any other Indian, says that she is hungry for more success.

In an exclusive interview with Sportstar, Saina shares her thoughts on her comeback, training and future plans.

Question: How do you look at the year that has passed?

Answer: The year 2016 was good in the beginning when I won the Australian Open Super Series and the bronze in the Asian Championship in January.

Then, in February, I had an Achilles tendon problem and late in August suffered an injury to the right knee. This resulted in a surgery followed by a rehab programme for close to 70 days.

 

But, I was really pleased with the way I came back towards the end of the year, reaching the quarterfinals of the Hong Kong and the Macau Opens.

No doubt, my ranking slipped from No. 6 to 10 and it was disappointing that I could not go beyond the second round in the Rio Olympics.

How important is the Malaysian Open win in this context?

The Malaysian Open is the first tournament of the year and winning that gave a good feeling. It is also a huge morale booster. I am definitely feeling better and there is no pain in the knee right now. I am thankful to my physio Arvind Nigam for his wholehearted support during the rehab and I am equally thankful to Mr. Heath Mathew for monitoring my progress after the surgery and giving advice to me time and again.

Well, the efforts of Vimal sir and Umendra Rana are also worth praising as they gave me the confidence that I could come back to the highest level.

What has been the most difficult aspect of your journey in the circuit in the last 12 months given the injury break?

It was full of misery for me. I missed the opportunity to give off my best in the Olympics and suffered health-wise too. I faced a lot of mental agony as the injury and its possible effect on my game haunted me. My ranking too slipped to the lowest level of my nine-year career.

But, again, I am thankful to the support of Dr. Dinshaw and physios Chandan and Arvind during surgery and rehab. They made me to feel as if nothing had happened to me.

For someone who has had a great stint at the highest level for so long, how difficult was it for you to go through the injury phase and still take part in the Rio Games?

I pray to the Almighty that no active player should suffer injuries. It is not easy to fight sports injuries. We have to spend money and also be away from the game that we love the most.

 

What exactly was your frame of mind after you came back from Rio and found that you had a serious injury?

I did not notice the injury in the training before the Olympics, but when I got severe pain at the event, it was found to be because of a broken bone in the kneecap. The hardship I faced later is well-known.

How optimistic were you of a comeback after such a career-threatening injury and what exactly was your thought process then? Any bout of frustration that almost made you give up the sport?

It happens to everybody who suffers injuries. I did my best to tide over the negative feelings and hope to do well in the future. I will do my best to maintain good health and work harder to get positive results.

The first major event after your injury break and rehab was the PBL. And you gave enough hints of your class. How important was the PBL in rebuilding your career?

The PBL was a good event for the players, who got monetary benefits, and enhanced the popularity of badminton in India. It also gave a chance for the young crop of Indian players to see world class performers at their doorstep. Actually, the 11-point game was much faster. A large number of spectators saw Carolina, Sun, Sindhu and me in action and I am sure the sport would have got a huge fillip.

Was losing to Carolina Marin and Sindhu something which you didn’t want?

This performance has no relevance to the 21-point format of the game, Carolina lost twice, but that does not mean that she is not a good player. So, the quality of the players will be judged in the coming tournaments in the year.

What are the three main reasons for your success at the Malaysian Open?

It is only one tournament. My progress will be judged in the coming tournaments. All the players will be taking some rest now and will come back in a big way at the German Open and the All-England Championship. So what kind of progress has been made can be judged only after these two major events.

Does it mean that you have to make some changes in your game or even training methods?

No. I have to keep myself injury-free and maintain good health. The training part is with Vimal sir, as he decides what I have to follow.

How mentally and physically prepared are you for the huge challenges ahead?

It is hardly a month since I have come back into the big league. There is time, still two months to be precise, for these majors. So, my training in the coming days will be vital for my progress.

You have always said that world rankings don’t actually matter, for they are a reflection of your performances over a period of time. Now, somewhere down the line, you aim to be the World No. 1 again?

I have always said that there is little difference among the top 20 players in the world. They are almost of the same standard. Anyone of these players can show the right kind of progress and step into the next zone at any given point of time. Good progress will improve anybody’s rankings. I will do my best to get as many points as possible by playing more tournaments, while going with the best training possible.

How significant is the arrival of Sindhu on the big stage? She is someone who picked up a few tricks while training with you for so long…

I can only say that hard work always pays.

Compared to the woman shuttlers from India, the men have not been really as consistent with only the odd triumph like Srikanth’s in the China Open and Sameer reaching the Hong Kong final. What is your take on this?

I don’t think so. Even the boys are doing well like Srikanth (Kidambi), Jayaram, Prannoy, Kashyap and Sameer. They are all good and so are the next group of players who are capable of achieving much bigger things. In fact, there are some wonderfully gifted under-16 players, who were spotted in the PBL. If groomed well they can produce great results.

Finally, what are the goals that you have set for yourself?

To give off my best at every opportunity I get and be recognised as a good badminton player.

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