The story of two comebacks lit up Indian badminton last weekend: Both riddled by injuries, eclipsed by luminous stable mates and slipping out of silverware contention in recent times. But for Parupalli Kashyap and Sameer Verma, winning the Austrian International Challenge Series and Swiss Open Super 300 titles respectively, has been more than just plain reassurance. It's a fresh lease of life.
Both had their previous title wins at the Syed Modi International GP Gold event - Sameer last year and Kashyap in 2015.
Calling his win in Vienna a 'satisfying feeling', Kashyap, a former world No 6 who has now slipped below 40 in rankings, says the tournament wasn't even part of his schedule to begin with. He originally intended to play the Swiss Open but missed the entry deadline, which prompted him to pick the Austrian Open instead. It turned out to be a blessing.
"I wanted to play for fun. I thought it would be a good chance to earn some points as well. But honestly, I felt the pressure since I hadn't won a title in a long time and this was only a Challenger tournament and I was seeded second. The pressure piled after the top seed (Pablo Arain) pulled out and I became the top seed. I told myself that I was supposed to win the title but I knew it wasn't going to be easy since I had been struggling against the same level of players over the past few months."
He went to win the title without dropping a game in the entire tournament. It was also his first Challenger tournament since 2012.
"After the second round I felt some kind of rhythm going. For the past two tournaments, Gopi sir had been asking me to be more relaxed, play defensive and change the pace of the game. I was finding it tough to implement but this time it worked."
"This I think is the first three-month period in over two and half years that I've gone without a niggle." Parupalli Kashyap
Over the past three years, Kashyap has had more than any athlete's share of injuries - calf muscle tear, right shoulder dislocation, abdominal strain and hamstring pull. He contemplated quitting and walking away from the sport a million times in between. He laughs gregariously as he lists out the injuries chronologically. It's probably the best way to get over the pain and the missed chances. "This I think is the first three-month period in over two and half years that I've gone without a niggle."
At the Gopichand academy in Hyderabad, Kashyap trains alongside the rest of the bunch of top Indian players, but it's not quite the ideal scenario. "Training with the others doesn't quite work for me. I can train as much or more than them, so physically it's not an issue. But the game is a lot more than that. The technical aspects and the way my body reacts can be very different at my age from the rest. A guy like Srikanth (Kidambi), for example, is physically gifted and can come back from a three-week injury layoff and train like he used to before, but for me despite training continuously if I don't do the right things my fitness level drops immediately. But my strong point is I can train for longer hours without picking up niggles."
Gaining confidence from his title last weekend, Kashyap's focus is now to climb inside the top-30 by May end and qualify for the Super Series tournaments. "I need to play the big tournaments like everyone else. It doesn't help if you're playing a whole different set of events. I've been trying to refine myself in all the areas, be it my game, my diet or training so that I can keep playing. I love the sport so much and don't want to quit now. I'm just trying to stretch my years as much as possible."
Even while he was purging his own demons in Vienna, Kashyap kept a close watch on the progress of his academy sparring partners at the Swiss Open. "Their match timings suited me to catch it live online and I was really delighted with the way Sameer and Guru (Saidutt) played. They're also returning from injuries and these performances were much needed."
RMV Gurusaidatt, who has been laid low by a complicated ankle injury, which he sustained in July 2016 and the surgery that followed, also scripted a mini-comeback last weekend with a quarterfinal appearance at the Swiss Open. He went on to lose in lopsided fashion to Thailand's Kantaphon Wangcharoen.
Sameer, who broke into the top 100 when he was just 17, also had recurrent injuries pushing him down the rankings. "It's great, just great to win a title after all the challenges that came with my right shoulder injury," Sameer, 23, says. "The recovery took a while but this time after long I felt that I was able to perform well."
"Since we're training partners each one's success affects everyone else very deeply." Sameer Verma
Three years ago he climbed into the top 50 and touched his career-high ranking of No 18 in September last year. After the Korea and Japan Open last year, Sameer was besieged by yet another injury, this time his right shoulder. It kept him off the court for three months. "It's tough to find the drive when you don't have the results. But you just have to keep your head down and train even if you're not sure of the returns. Last year just the way (Kidambi) Srikanth, (HS) Prannoy and Sai (Praneeth) performed, motivated me to push myself. Since we're training partners each one's success affects everyone else very deeply."
Ahead of his Swiss Open final against former world No 2 Jan O Jorgenssen on Sunday, coach Pullela Gopichand offered Sameer a four-point directive: eat, sleep, recover and put the cell phone away. "I have beaten Jan before (2016 Hong Open semis) but you tend to build it up in your head when you face a higher-ranked player. Gopi sir called me both before semi-final and the final to check on the little things that as players we often tend to take lightly. He asked me to pay attention to my rest, recovery, food and sleep and also (asked me) to stay away from my phone and social media. He knows that normally before a final I find it hard to sleep."
For all three players, the worry of injury is ceaseless and so is the trepidation and excitement that accompanies each comeback. Kashyap sees through the predicament and speaks for his lot: "It's natural that you begin to question yourself on how far you can go in a tournament and whether you have another title win in you. You just have to back yourself and push past everything. The result might take you by surprise."