Straddling an ice pack under his right knee, Ajay Jayaram grimaces when he looks back at the past 10 months. From touching his career-best ranking of 13 and leading the pack of Indian men's singles players in April this year, he has now missed five international tournaments in a row, having fallen outside the top 20.
On Monday, two matches in under seven hours at the Senior Nationals was a bit of a stretch on Jayaram's strapped right knee. It worked to the favor of junior world No. 3 Lakshya Sen,who was handed a walkover into the semifinals after Jayaram pulled out when he was trailing 10-15.
Jayaram does not belong to any badminton academy, nor does he train under a full-time coach; he is pretty much on his own, an oddity for a professional player ranked where is. In fact, Jayaram is the only Indian player inside the top 50 who doesn't train at the Gopichand Academy.
Leaving the Tom John Academy in Bengaluru to move back home to Mumbai at the start of the year, Jayaram says he has been injured for the most part after the shift to be able to make a value judgement on the call. It was, in fact, after the shift that he climbed to No. 13 in the world.
The closest he came to a major title win in the last 23 months was making the 2016 Dutch Open final. His World Championship round of 16 defeat to Chen Long in August this year was the last competitive tournament he turned up for prior to the ongoing senior nationals.
In the intervening break that he allowed himself, he suffered a hamstring pull. To add to it, an old knee injury also flared up. "MRIs haven't shown anything major yet. But this has been happening for a while now so I have to take extra care. I've kept away from training much for the past couple of months, barring some practice two weeks prior to the nationals."
In an individual sport like badminton, it's not easy for a player to train, compete, battle injury layoffs and stay motivated without the assured presence of a coach who would mime you to hang in there, push for one more point from courtside, and tell you that he has got your back at all times.
For Jayaram, these are luxuries he has had to live without for a while. It's not something he has gotten too used to and sounds open to a change. Only after a complete recovery, he says, will he be in a position to take a call. Right now his body is dictating terms. "I haven't been able to gauge how Mumbai turned out for me since I've mostly been injured. Maybe once I'm fit, I might move to train in a coaching academy."
At 30, Jayaram is a bit of the elder statesman in the top Indian men's singles line-up and in his bright green fluorescent socks pulled up to his knees on Monday evening, he did not have the limbs to last another match.
"Right now my mind is just focused on getting to 100% fitness more than prioritising tournaments. Only once I'm a little fitter can I probably plan out my schedule little better. I hope to play in China, Hong Kong and then the PBL. That's the fullest extent of my plans right now."
When he looks around, he finds a smattering of Superseries titles among the top Indian men while that one big title still eludes him. There is no self-loathing though.
"I think it's just brilliant the way Srikanth has played this year. This is definitely his year. I'm nothing short of amazed at his performance. It adds to my motivation for a Superseries title," he says. "That hunger is there. I really want to get back, train hard and compete again."
But there's a hitch. "Every day I have to see if my body is okay and push accordingly."
The weeks and months away from the court also offered Jayaram a chance to catch up on his much-creditable sketching skills. He keeps his social media followers posted on the newest ones in his collection. It could be a Lionel Messi portrait, a 3-D sketch of a shuttlecock, or a step-by-step unraveling of Jon Snow.
"Every Sunday I'm adding one," he says. "Even if I'm playing, I don't miss out on it."