Saina Nehwal's homecoming

Star shuttler determined to walk the talk with Pullela Gopichand in second stint

The scenes were as usual at the recently-built SAI Pullela Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad on Tuesday. A handful of singles shuttlers played long rallies, while the rest of them had just finished their stretching session. Out of the nine available courts, only six were occupied as the majority of the singles shuttlers had left for Seoul to play at the Korea Open Superseries. It seemed like a routine day until Court 2 grabbed everyone’s attention. Shuttlecocks were scattered across one side of the court, while on the other, Saina Nehwal was fine-tuning her forehand strokes from the backcourt under the watchful eyes of coach Pullela Gopichand.

Towards the end of the session, there was a moment of frustration for the 27-year-old after one of her shots hit the frame. ‘Arey yaar, come on,’ Saina bellowed. But, unperturbed by the rare mistake, she got ready for the next round as the coach tossed shuttlecocks in the air one after the other for Saina to master the skill. She kept control of all her shots, managing to connect and land each of them just inside the baseline. A sigh of relief followed by a thumbs up was enough to sense that there was a certain calmness about her on the court. She jogged around the circle for a few minutes before pointing at her physiotherapist, Arvind Nigam with a broad smile, indicating that she was up for the final stretching session.

Saina has faced a few upheavals in the past few years, including a debilitating injury before the 2016 Rio Olympics that almost forced her to quit the sport. However, she has decided to bury the past and start afresh. Saina looks at ease. After all, she is home again. “It feels nice to be back home first of all because Hyderabad is where my home is and training is, of course, going to be different, so again the atmosphere will be different. Obviously, it feels fresh and I'm up and running to train. The main thing whether I'm home or anywhere else, it's all about training, to keep on improving. I would want to see more improvements and changes in my game. To win titles is one thing but staying fit and being injury-free is what I'm looking at. I'm happy with the training at the academy,” Saina told Firstpost.

It feels nice to be back home, Saina told Firstpost

Saina Nehwal (R) listens to coach Pullela Gopichand (L) at the mid-game interval during her women's singes first round match against Russia's Ella Karachkova at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games — AFP
Saina Nehwal (R) listens to coach Pullela Gopichand (L) at the mid-game interval during her women's singes first round match against Russia's Ella Karachkova at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games — AFP

The grin on her face after flooring a higher-ranked Sung Ji Hyun at the recently-concluded World Badminton Championships in Glasgow was pretty much an indication that Saina was on the right track. A well-deserved bronze medal – which was also her second successive title at the world event, after winning silver in 2015 edition – was a sign that things have gone just about right following a patchy display in 2016, where she even considered the thought of never picking up the racquet again.

While PV Sindhu played a 110-minute marathon match in the final against Nozomi Okuhara, Saina had a chat with her former coach Gopichand in the background about a possible return to her alma mater – to the Pullela Gopichand Academy. After the medal ceremony concluded in Glasgow, the duo was seen clicking selfies, chatting happily and within days, the speculation turned into reality.

“At the World Championships in Glasgow, I spoke to Gopi sir about the switch and he was happy to help me improve my game in whatever way he can. That was the discussion we had there. Also, he felt that there are a few areas where I could improve. We discussed a few things and these are the small changes that will help me a lot to become a better player. I feel this can make the difference at the highest level,” said Saina.

"There's nothing much that I should change in my game, but to reach the top level you need to fine-tune a player and make those small changes. We discussed all this and I think it will make the difference in future. As of now, I can't say a lot as it's just been a few days, the whole process will take up to four to five months. I'm happy with the kind of training and improvement that's happening," added the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist.

India sprung a surprise in the 2017 Badminton World Federation (BWF) calendar year with a total of eight titles – more than Japan (6), Chinese Taipei (5) and China (4) before adding a couple of medals in Glasgow.

Training once again with Gopichand’s wards – who have garnered accolades from around the world after impressive outings in recent tournaments – was a logical move in every sense as the former World No 1 does not want to settle for anything less than a title every tournament. “Badminton is not always about a few areas but your overall game. Overall improvement has to happen. I trained with Gopi sir for about 10 years, in fact, since I was 14, so he knows a lot about my game. From here on whatever improvements I require, I think he knows best about it. At the moment, I can't really tell about one particular area, my whole game needs to improve," said Saina before adding: "All of us at the academy are playing extremely well, be it men's or women's. Players here already have the idea of performing well at the highest level."

saina centre image

After being laid low by a knee injury ahead of the Rio Olympics last year, Saina fought well with Vimal Kumar’s help to get back to winning ways. Her confidence was dented after the agony she endured to stay on her feet in Brazil. Despite that, she managed to compete in a few tournaments this year before taking home a Grand Prix Gold title at the Malaysia Masters in January. Her admirable run at the worlds might have ended in the semi-finals, but the comeback from knee surgery and the medal proved that the hunger hasn't diminished.

One year back this date I had to go for knee surgery in 2016 and today with the bronze medal at the world championships 2017 😢☺️quite happy with the progress 🙏

A post shared by Saina Nehwal (@nehwalsaina) on

A string of good results is just what Saina needs at the moment and with Gopichand's presence around her, things are only going to get better for the fighter. Now that she has gone past toughest tides, her decision to return will soon answer a slew of questions.

But, there were a few concerns with her knee despite full recovery earlier this year. Saina conceded that she felt a bit apprehensive while attacking the net and it was still evident how difficult it was for her to lift the shuttle from the sidelines of the court. However, after spending hours daily to improve her foot movements, she was able to lunge and make clean returns.

"As a coach, it is our responsibility that the players reach their full potential and provide them everything. I've been very clear with this since the beginning. When she mentioned that she wanted to go back to the Gopichand Academy, I had no issues at all. I told her to take care of her physical training as far as her fitness is concerned. She always did extra work and these things affected her later with a few injuries. So, if she can take care of that, she can deliver a lot under Gopichand and Handoyo," Kumar spoke about his pupil's fitness to Firstpost after the news broke out.

A lot has been spoken about how Saina slowed the tempo of her games at big tournaments, but none cared about the comeback trail she was on. While Kumar was definite about the Olympic medallist's on-court movements, Saina seemed to agree with her former coach. "I think it's definitely about fitness. I believe what he said is right. At the same time, it is about the day to day improvement on the court. Fitness, as he mentioned, is always the key. The fitter you are the more chances of doing well. But, it is also about the movements that need to be smoother and then you need to get good sharp strokes. I agree with Vimal (Kumar) sir that my fitness needs to improve and that's what all the coaches here at the academy tell me. Stamina is one such area where I need to buckle up," said Saina.

Pullela Gopichand, Saina Nehwal, Badminton Association of India president Himanta Biswas Sarma and PV Sindhu pose after a press conference in Hyderabad — @BAIMedia
Pullela Gopichand, Saina Nehwal, Badminton Association of India president Himanta Biswas Sarma and PV Sindhu pose after a press conference in Hyderabad — @BAIMedia

Stamina is one area where I need to buckle up, said Saina

It's been more than a week since Saina returned to the place where it all started; the place where she feels relaxed after training three years in Bengaluru at the Prakash Padukone Academy. With the introduction of a lot of talented shuttlers in the women's singles, it is becoming more and more challenging for players to win titles at Grand Prix Gold, Superseries or Superseries Premier events. Saina acknowledges the fact that despite being back with Gopichand, the rest of the journey won't be easy.

"Every women's singles shuttler is playing well and they will catch you at any point of time. It's not only about deception, they are good at speed and stamina and almost everything, so you need to consider every aspect of the game and day by day the results will come. There is so much competition in every department," she explained.

Interestingly, there is healthy competition within the Indian camp itself as one of Gopichand's star wards, Sindhu has swiftly jumped a few rungs in recent times to make it to the top 5 of the BWF Rankings.

"Healthy competition is always good, it will help a lot. It is great to have two Indian women's singles (Sindhu and Saina) win medals at the World Championships and I couldn't be happier as we as a country have managed to pull off such feat. Hopefully, with this, we will have more and more chances of winning medals," Gopichand told Firstpost.

Homesickness was one of the reasons why Saina wanted a move back to Hyderabad and Kumar did not want to stop his pupil from taking decisions which would help her grow. Now, under Gopichand, the warrior-like shuttler is back to her roots, under the mentorship of the man who knows best about her movements and skillset. "I've trained her (Saina) for the last 10 years since she was a sub-junior and now she is a player who has done very well at multiple tournaments and hopefully, we both can churn out medals and titles for the country, Gopichand signed off.

Injuries and dip in form are just a part of an athlete's career but to shrug off that and come back with a point to prove is what'll be etched in everyone's memories. There will be a few grueling challenges ahead for her but that shouldn't stop her, after all, she is home again.