August 19, 2016. On a day when PV Sindhu went from finalist to Olympic silver medallist to national hero to brand icon, her predecessor Saina Nehwal took to Twitter to brief fans of a ruptured knee and an impending surgery.
By the close of the year, Saina was being referred to as a has-been and tireless questions swirled around a career that may have come to a sudden halt.
In two years’ time, Saina, winner of Comeback of the Year at the ESPN India Awards for 2018, was to put together one of her most unforgettable years. And all the hopeless pessimists quietly took their seats.
Saina trained at the Prakash Padukone academy under coach Vimal Kumar up until her World Championship bronze in 2017, which was among her first major results since the surgery. Not many believed she would climb up a podium again. Speaking to ESPN, Vimal says that what sets Saina apart is her mental strength. “It’s not easy to come out of what she did. For many players, that may have well been the end of the road. So you have to appreciate her resolve to persist and get in some good results. She’s a good example for the younger lot of how to deal with adversity and even though I might not agree with a lot of things she does, she deserves full credit for the way she hung in and continued to fight.”
In a zipped-up, bright pink jacket, her eyes squinting in the late afternoon sun in Gold Coast, Saina allowed journalists to mob her with questions. Some were staid, others cheery, but with a gold medal glinting around her neck, she didn’t seem to mind either. She spoke with mild abandon of how the pressure of having to prove she’s still relevant and competitive gnaws at her especially when she’s up against her younger stable-mate. She hoped her win in the final against Sindhu would put some of it to rest.
At the Asian Games later in the year, she became the first Indian singles player since Syed Modi’s bronze in 1982, to win a medal. Sindhu had a bit of a deeper run but eventually lost to the same opponent as Saina – World No 1 Tai Tzu Ying – in the final for a silver medal.
Beating Sindhu consistently, Vimal adds, only added an extra layer of belief. “Suddenly when you see you’ve been displaced from the top female player status it’s bound to affect you. But beating Sindhu in finals, be it the Commonwealth Games or the Nationals, somewhere added a lot to her confidence.
The only thing she needs to do is understand her body and take care of it. That was the only area we disagreed a lot on when we were working together. She tends to over-train but at the end of the day that’s who she is and maybe that’s what’s gotten her so far. She may or may not win an Olympic medal next year but it doesn’t matter.
That she’s here, training, fighting and competing after a disastrous injury tells you what she’s made up of.”