Mumbai: As a 21-year-old, Gaurav Nandrajog was touted to be India's next best thing in squash. With an edgy game on the court and gritty attitude to boot, he was expected to challenge the best in India and may be even the world.
He had burst onto the squash scene as a junior who would cause havoc in the senior category. His most famous victory coming in 2006 when he felled the then leading star of Indian squash - Ritwik Bhattacharya.
He is 31 now and a lot has changed since those heady days.
In the crowded squash courts of the Otters club in Mumbai, Nandrajog is finding a place to sit and get into his warm-up. He is competing in the qualifying stages of the 73rd squash national championship organised by the Squash Racket Federation of India.
Nandrajog is met with plenty of high-fives and also quite a few hello sir's. Old members of the club come forward to greet him. You know someone important has just walked in.
But Nandrajog admits respect still doesn't mean an easy ride to the main draw, and a chance to challenge the current leading stars of Indian squash.
"For me, it is about proving a point," he says. "I just want to show that life does not end at 30 for a sportsperson," the Delhi-based player adds.
The task isn't as straightforward. He has six rounds of qualifying to overcome and then hope to get a favourable draw in the mains where the likes of Saurav Ghosal will come into the picture.
Ten years ago, Nandrajog was at the top of the game, but an illness cut short his rise.
"I overworked myself and headed straight for a burnout," he says. "I would train for eight hours a day. I didn't know at the time what I was doing wasn't good for my body. I felt the harder I worked the better it was for me," he added.
"The workload soon took a toll and I started suffering injuries. My performance dipped, and I began losing the matches that I would usually win."
A lack of proper nutrition and training regime halted the rise of the then promising youngster.
"I began sleeping 16 hours a day. My body gave in. I began putting on weight and my joints began aching. I though I'll work even harder and recover, but these things do work that way. What I actually faced was a burnout."
It took a few years, but Nandrajog realised the folly of his routine.
He now follows a new approach.
"I brought about changes to my diet and my physical and spiritual training,”" he says.
From practicing Reiki to acupressure training and following an alkaline diet, Nandrajog changed his lifestyle.
The regime he says has brought about a world of change. "I am fitter now and in a much better shape to compete," he says.
Overcoming the mental pressures of falling out of the top bracket though, though is the toughest part.
Back at the Otter's club and Nandrajog has just found out his first round game is against a 13-year-old junior Shreyas Mehta.
Nandrajog trains boys like Shreyas at his academy in New Delhi, where he has taken up as a full-time coach.
The open participation policy introduced the SRFI, though means seniors like Nandrajog have to compete with opponent of all ages.
Nandrajog does not lose sweat and sweeps aside the youngster but does not patronise him at all through the game.
"I don't mind playing a 13-year-old. It's an open tournament. But, one has to wonder what the organisers hope to achieve with such draws," he says.
Asked if he had ever thought of quitting as a player, the answer is the negative.
"There have been plenty of times when you wonder if all the hard work is worth it."
"But, I am passionate about the sport. I can't imagine not playing it ever. I will continue as long as my body allows it. I have had a few bumps in the road, but they have only made my resolve stronger," he says.
"I am taking the nationals seriously and looking out for sponsors to get back on the professional circuit. If all things fall in place, may be late in the day, but it might all be worth it in the end."