She could barely move on court. The heavily-strapped right knee was visible to all while the dexamethasone injection did nothing to reduce the pain. Saina Nehwal was losing to Marija Ulitina, a rank outsider from Ukraine, and India watched it unfold at the Rio Olympics on television.
A front-runner to replicate, maybe do better, than the bronze four years ago, the 26-year-old bowed out in the group stages but all was not lost. India celebrated as young compatriot PV Sindhu got silver, losing to world No 1 Carolina Marin in the final.
Any injury is painful but for an athlete at the top of the game, it’s the worst-case scenario. A simple Internet search throws up examples of injuries that hampered an athlete’s progress. The most common ones are strains and muscle pulls where recovery time can be gauged. But when it happens in a weight-bearing joint such as the knee or hip, an athlete is never sure how long he or she will be away from the field.
Saina had to go under the knife and is doing rehab to get back to the circuit. Her first tournament in four months will be in China from November 15. Recently, the former world No 1 expressed concerns that “many people will think my career will end and I won’t come back. I also think somewhere deep in my heart that maybe it is the end of my career”.
“There are usually two things playing on the mind of injured athletes. The money they are losing every day and how well the recovery will be,” according to Dr Vece Paes, eminent sports medical consultant and Olympic bronze medallist hockey player.
“As an example, a top-level footballer earns a huge amount of money every week. Every day the footballer is injured, he’s causing the club and himself to lose money. That’s something which plays on an athlete’s mind. Secondly, recovery has to be at 100 per cent. If they rush back too fast, there’s always a chance of further damage, even to the extent of forgoing a whole career.”
Father to 18-time Grand Slam champion Leander, Paes Sr recounts how the seven-time Olympian took four months off a year before the 1996 Atlanta Games to recuperate from a wrist injury. “Leander was committed to getting back and he took time off as suggested.”
The psychological response to an injury can trigger issues, from depression to anxiety and eating disorders. Saina’s father Harvir Singh said his daughter is fighting to get fit. “The thought (of her career ending) did cross her mind. Not having played for four months, doing rehab, she still has the hunger to get back to the top,” he says. Despite the break, Saina is still ranked No 6 in the world.
There is always the nagging fear of someone taking your place. “In Saina’s case, it’s not just the injury. There are other players round the corner waiting to take her place,” feels Paes. Rivalries are an integral part of sports and after Sindhu’s silver, social media went abuzz that it was time for an injured Saina to hang up her racquet. The shuttler has gone on record to say that Sindhu’s rise gives her encouragement to train harder. “Rivalry will be there after all everyone, at the end, is your opponent. Just because she’s Indian doesn’t mean I won’t try to win,” Saina had said.
Injury is part of an athlete’s life and to recover is far from easy. “The key is to not rush an injury. One has to be professional, do rehab, play the smaller tournaments to get back the rhythm, and so on,” says Paes. “One has to be mentally, physically and emotionally fit.” Saina has been doing everything she can to get ready. From swimming to exercises, she’s been uploading her progress on social media.
“Sports, at times, is cruel,” Vimal Kumar, Saina’s current coach, had said in Rio. Ask world No 1 Sania Mirza. Coping with injuries and surgeries from the start of her tennis career, she had to give up playing singles to focus on doubles. But her ascent to the top has shut naysayers up. The six-time Grand Slam champion ended the season as No 1 for the second successive year.
Social media has witnessed an outpouring of sympathy for Saina. The China Open Super Series Premier and subsequent tournaments will be a test to gauge her progress before the big test in Dubai – the world Super Series finals. For now, taking the first step is what counts.