"I love the game and didn't want to get away from the game. I have been lucky to be with the right people at the right time and really happy that I am playing the sport," says Parupalli Kashyap as we catch up with him after his team Chennai Smashers' emphatic win over Bengaluru Blasters in the Premier Badminton League at NSCI, Mumbai.
The ace shuttler had agreed to spare some time after the tie got over, and what came right across in the interaction we had, was his friendly nature as he faced every question with a smile.
"I didn't expect I would win that comfortably but it wasn't as easy as the score seems. I was really tense in a couple of situations," he says even after crushing his opponent Sourabh Varma 11-8, 11-5. His humility and respect for the opponent is totally befitting of the champion player that he is.
He has come a long way from being a teenager who feared for his career after he was diagnosed with asthma, to being the only one from India to advance into the quarter-final of the men's singles in the 2012 Olympics to being the third Indian to win gold in men's singles in the Commonwealth Games after Prakash Padukone in 1978 and Syed Modi in 1982.
Kashyap, without a shadow of doubt, is the pre-eminent player in Indian badminton in the men's category and a star in his own right. However, he doesn't have the air that you usually associate with one.
He had a frustrating 2016. He sustained a knee injury in the German Open in March which put paid to his hopes of making it to the Rio Olympics. It was not until September, in the Indonesia Grand Prix Gold that he made his return, beating Nathaniel Ernestan Sulistyo, but was shown the door by compatriot Ajay Jayaram in the next round.
He has had a history of debilitating injuries which perhaps have prevented his career from reaching the heights that it deserves. He suffered a calf muscle tear in October 2015, which led to an abdominal strain and as a result, could not defend his Syed Modi Grand Prix Gold title.
On being asked, how difficult has it been to motivate himself during the time that he was away from action, he replied, "It was very tough because from seven I dropped beyond 100 in the rankings and there are so many new players doing really well. When you are at a high ranking it is easy to maintain yourself because you are leading the pack, but sometimes when you fall behind, there are so many players you have to cross and it is tough to accept and move on because suddenly you are in a different situation altogether. But I thought I handled it well. It took time for me to get my rhythm back. Luckily, at the tournament in Korea, I did well and got my confidence (back) and today, I am happy the way I handled the pressure."
His dominating performance on the night showed that he was slowly but surely getting back into his groove. He moved fluently on the court and his smashes just singed the opponent, and Kashyap is visibly happy at the way he played.
"I was actually surprised by the way I was moving and was feeling quite good today on the court. Sourabh is in form and he has been doing really well. Even in training we have played so many times and it has always been very close and it had been 50:50 result in matches in training," he says.
The Korea Open gave Kashyap something to cheer about in a difficult year. Kashyap reached the semi-final in that tournament, only to go down to Son Wan Ho. But he was leading 14-10 at one point in that match, and then 12-10 in another game. Did he get into a winning position but fail to convert? Has it been the case with him in big tournaments generally?
Kashyap, however, chooses to look at the positives. "I wouldn't say I was in a clear winning position in Korea. It was a 50:50 match. In 2015 I played him (Son Wan Ho) thrice and won twice, but in Korea I was really happy to reach the semis because I was trying to come back (from injury). Just because of that one match I can't look back and say I am not being able to get to the final, or I am not being able to win. You shouldn't forget the last three matches that I won. Those also could have gone either way. Then we wouldn't be having a discussion about my performance in Korea. I look at the positives and keep improving slowly. That is what I am trying to do."
There is a considerable weight of expectation on his shoulders, which he would acknowledge. His performance, especially in the London Olympics has identified him as the player who can bring India big laurels. He is the kind of player who you would expect to win big tournaments.
It has been a long time since we have had a Prakash Padukone, or a Syed Modi, or indeed a Pullela Gopichand. Kashyap has the potential to be the next big thing in Indian badminton, but apart from him, the men's section is overflowing with talent. There are the likes of Ajay Jayaram, HS Prannoy, Kidambi Srikanth and Sourabh and Sameer Varma. All of them have given good account of themselves at the international stage. So when can India be the next superpower in men's badminton? When can we see our men on the podium at the big tournaments on a consistent basis?
"We are getting there," assures Kashyap. "I would say we have an advantage and a disadvantage," he adds.
"In the women's section, there are very few (top players). So for a coach it is already easy. When you have 10 girls at the same level, it is very tough to single out one and say I am going to train her and focus on her. I think Gopi sir (national coach Pullela Gopichand) has not got an issue on that because there is (Pusarla Venkata) Sindhu and the rest are quite behind (her). So he can clearly focus on Sindhu and before that it was Saina (Nehwal). But now since 2013, it has been Srikanth, Prannoy, me. I was there alone and I did well in the Olympics and then at the world championships I missed a medal by a point, but post the Commonwealth Games (2014), there are eight players now.
"It is very tough for Gopi sir to handle it on his own. So for two months one person plays well and for another two months another person plays well. Big wins will come only if we have a lot of people supporting Gopi as a coach which is not happening right now. He is doing the best he can and as is humanly possible. Whatever he does is a little inhuman I feel, (considering) the number of hours he spends. I had asked someone to make a clone of Gopi who will help us," Kashyap says.
He acknowledges that there is stiff competition in the men's category in Indian badminton.
"There are lots of players in men's singles. So it is a little tough. First you have to compete amongst yourselves and come out of it. That pressure is not there on the women. They are directly playing international competitions and that's about it. You don't have the pressure of an Indian getting out of a group of players. Sourabh was playing really well, then he lost to me. Sameer is there, Srikanth is there. But the results will improve. Compare ourselves to 10 years back and we are in a very good position," the 30-year-old shuttler says.
We have come to the end of the session as the public relations official gently reminds that there is a posse of journalists waiting for quotes from Kashyap. He is evidently in demand and not without reason.
In a country in the thrall of Sindhu and Saina, the achievements of the men can be easily overlooked. But the performances of Kashyap, Jayaram and Prannoy in the PBL so far have proved that happy days are round the corner for men's badminton in India. For Kashyap specifically, a good PBL campaign will give him a lot of confidence after the disappointment of last year and stand him in good stead for the year ahead.