Moments after Tereza Svabikova retired at the start of the second game in visible pain, Saina Nehwal walked over to her Czech opponent's half of the court. The Indian was handed a passage into the second round, her first since March last year. But the nature of Svabikova's back injury had her curious and she hung around for an empathetic chat. Her forensic interest in the workings of the athlete body is perhaps brought on from patching her own sore parts and making them last matches, tournaments and years, despite stiff resistance from her limbs.
"I was a little shocked because I haven't seen bad back injuries happening in a match previously," Saina told media after the match. "So I just wanted to know how it happened. I played a drop shot on her forehand side and I don't know if it was a joke, but she said she felt something on her back. If she can't walk, I'm sure it was very serious."
Saina's own roll-call of niggles have been lengthy and agonizing. Since March 2019 she's made only one semifinal and the greater part of last year turned out to be a clump of first-round exits. This week's India Open in New Delhi is her first tournament since October last year. She skipped the World Championships in December for the first time since her debut in 2006.
"There were three issues at a time with my knee -- I tore my cartilage, had an issue with my patella," pausing to lay a finger on the third with a laugh. "There was one more I think, a meniscus...it's a big term. My recovery levels were really good in last 3-4 months and I was able to take the tough training. But one bad step and I got a groin tear. What I didn't know was that my knee was into big trauma which really got bad in the French Open (Oct 2021). It all happened suddenly. Till that match (first-round retirement) it wasn't so bad. I could at least go up and down the stairs. After that, I was limping. I could not walk. When I did the MRI, the doctor was like 'oh sh** I don't think you can go for the World Championships, or play till December'. I wanted to play but there wasn't much that could be done. The doctor isn't sure if I'll recover fully or not and I wasn't expecting to play the India Open...but I had a good rehab, could practice for seven days and I'm here now."
Saina, whose last Tour title came in January 2019, couldn't crack the Tokyo qualification last year. Around the time of the Olympics, a world away from the pressure-frothing cauldron, she chose not to spend her time counting regrets, but instead explored a bunch of things she never had before: travel the country, soak in history, fuss over decorating her new home and discover Friends for the first time -- things she wouldn't ordinarily think of, let alone do, in an Olympic year.
Though they got married in December 2018, the couple began living together only in March last year. "Until we moved in together into our new home, it was about meeting each other and being room partners at tournaments," her husband and fellow player, Parupalli Kashyap said. "In July we travelled to Delhi and Dharamshala for some work, but once we got there, Saina was like, 'I've never seen the Taj Mahal!'". The couple decided to visit the monument over the weekend since Saina wanted to fly back to Hyderabad and report for Monday's training session. As luck would have it, Agra went under weekend lockdown and they were suddenly left with two whole days and no plans. "We'd been to Delhi tons of times for the India Open but it's limited to shuttling between stadium and hotel. If we lost early, we would go back to Hyderabad and start training so we never really had the chance to explore the city or most other places for that matter, before."
The couple had an ASI tour guide accompany them and exploring the remains of the old city walls and crumbling Mughal tombs, scratched at the appetite of the history converts. They added Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur and an extra week to their itinerary and shopped for clothes in Delhi to last the trip. "We fell in love with the Chittorgarh fort and listened to accounts of Maharana Pratap Singh like kids, completely mesmerized by the stories."
Saina and Kashyap -- aged 31 and 35 and conceivably in the final bend of her playing days, have both had exacting foes in their bodies. They've known each other almost as long as they've played the sport and injuries can unsurprisingly turn into dinner table conversation. Saina formally joined the ruling party, BJP, in 2020 and she and Kashyap have been allotted land by the Himachal Pradesh government to set up an academy.
They've lately discovered the couple joys of loving the same TV show. "Being around each other at home all the time is a different experience. Saina is a perfectionist, and always spot the little things that need fixing around the house," Kashyap said. "We still find space for alone time, in training. After missing out on Tokyo she was disappointed, but she got back to training almost right away. When you're an athlete you have no choice but to move on."
Saina knows it well enough. It's her ability to grit through cataclysmic phases and dreadful injuries, to come back each time just when you think she's finished, that's seen her through her torrid years. A two-time India Open champion, the way her body is placed now, at "60-70 per cent", she'll be happy to take even a couple of rounds this week. She has entries in two more tournaments in India in the weeks ahead, a Super 300 and Super 100. She won't mind the ranking points. If clearing the first round at the India Open fetches her over 2000 points, a deeper run at the relatively low-profile Odisha Open Super 100 later this month could rake in anywhere between 3000 and 5000 ranking points. An upward push in the rankings will also bring with it kinder draws. The Commonwealth Games, where she's defending champion, and Asian Games are around six months away. Her body needs weekly assessment and doesn't allow her to plan too far ahead but she would surely want a parting shot at both. "When I watch matches of other players, I like to do some kind of workout myself. It gives me confidence that yes, I can come back. Lots of players get injured. I want to accept the challenge. Let's see what all injuries I can cope with and come back stronger."
But every physical rehab carries with it a steep mental cost and athletes can stay in the funk for a while. For Saina it's been a ceaseless battle. "It's not easy. I definitely feel it's enough, I'm trying too much. Sometimes feel like giving up," she said. "The mental part is tough. Tournaments are happening, other players are winning and I'm sitting and watching them. But it's okay. It's a challenge, it's a fight. Maybe there are some good days ahead."