Saina Nehwal still aiming for Tokyo 2020
Saina Nehwal is not just any other athlete looking to qualify for the Olympics, but the original icon who began the badminton upswing in the country, making India an international force to reckon with. At 29, and desperately trying to make it to another Olympics, the 2012 London Games bronze medallist is feeling the burden of that weight.
On Wednesday, Nehwal made her entry into politics, but her aim for the near future remains the same—to move into the top 16 in the Race to Tokyo rankings by April 28 to qualify for her fourth consecutive Olympics.
It will not be easy; Nehwal is currently 22nd in the rankings. If not, PV Sindhu, ranked No6, in all likelihood will be India’s only representative in women’s singles at Tokyo.
“Saina has to qualify. She is in kind of a tight situation,” says husband and coach Parupalli Kashyap, currently playing for the Mumbai Rockets in the Premier Badminton League (PBL). “But I am hopeful that she will get through. There are 8-9 tournaments (till the cut off date). The upcoming three-week period is important for her. Hopefully she can stay healthy and a couple of (good) results will do it.”
What Nehwal needs to qualify is a few tournaments where she progresses at least to the semi-finals, but her recent dive has been so deep that the former world No 1 has not managed to reach the semi-finals even once in the 17 tournaments she has played since winning her last title, the Indonesia Masters in January 2019.
Kashyap says the reason for her poor run on court is a difficult year that has been plagued with health and fitness issues.
“Her body has taken a toll the last year. You’ve been seeing the unfit Saina for so many months,” he says. “She was playing well in 2018 but after that it’s been a lot of pain for her. Then she had pancreatitis in addition to continuous acute gastroenteritis. She was even hospitalised when I played the semis in Korea Open (September 2019),” said the former world No 6.
“I don’t know whether it was the side effects but when I spoke to the orthopedic he said that everything might be linked as she also had pain in joints, knees, Achilles (heel), and shin constantly for six months.”
Regular health issues and multiple hospitalisations stopped Nehwal from proper training stints, forcing her to withdraw from tournaments, including the ongoing PBL. In the rare windows of good health, she was not at peak fitness.
“The problem is when we plan training blocks, you have some injury and it goes for a toss. One or two weeks go in rest and then you play the tournament (without enough training) because you have to,” says Kashyap. “The standard (in women’s singles) is such that if you are one percent fitter, you are in a different league. If you are one percent less fit, then suddenly any ordinary player has a chance against you.”
First round exits
A two-time World Championship medallist, Nehwal thought that she would get over the phase and manage by doing well in a couple of tournaments to maintain her ranking. But that didn’t happen, as she suffered as many as eight first round exits in 2019. This year too, the former world No 1 has exited in the first round in two of the three events she has played so far. She has also lost the last seven three-game ties she’s played.
“It’s a bad patch. Third game fitness is not enough,” says Kashyap, giving the example of world No 1 and reigning world champion Kento Momota, who recently suffered an accident and is out of action for a few weeks, saying that the Japanese’s key to success is his physicality and fitness level. Physicality has been Nehwal’s hallmark too; at peak fitness, she has been a world-beater, taking down world champions like Carolina Marin, Nozomi Okuhara or Yihan Wang.
However, Kashyap is confident that given the right amount of training, Nehwal will be able to bounce back. “She is a player who has won medals at the Olympics. She wants to reach a stage where she’ll start fighting for titles again,” he says. “I feel she is a step or two behind and just has to train for a period of 4-6 weeks. That’s what she is trying now. These are crucial times but hopefully she can stay healthy. A couple of good performances and everything changes. Then you can see a different side of Saina.”
Married in 2018 following years of courtship, Kashyap, 33, doesn’t like being called “Saina’s coach”. He prefers “mentor”. The couple started training together in 2018, under the guidance of chief coach Pullela Gopichand, consulting foreign coaches when they feel the need to.
“We just decided to help each other. She felt confident that I was taking care of her and liked it. Both of us join the boys sometimes and whenever we need (help), everyone’s there including (foreign coach) Park Tae Sang,” says Kashyap.
After missing out on Rio 2016 due to injury, Kashyap, 2012 London Olympics quarter-finalist has put himself in men’s singles contention for Tokyo too. Behind B Sai Praneeth (No.11) and Sourabh Verma (21), Kashyap is the third best Indian at No.22 in the Race to Tokyo rankings, ahead of Kidambi Srikanth (26), HS Prannoy (29) and Lakshya Sen (30).
“I am trying to enjoy my game. If I qualify, fine, if I don’t, then I don’t,” he says.