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Parupalli Kashyap hopes bold new approach to fitness clears path for 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Kashyap in action at the India Open Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Three years, eleven months and 17 days. That's how long it's been since Parupalli Kashyap last reached the semi-finals of a Super Series/World Tour 500 event. He made the last four of the Singapore Open in April 2015. Now at the India Open, following a 21-11, 21-13 win over Thailand's Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk in the pre-quarterfinals, he's one win away from getting back into the weekend stage.

Semi-final appearances weren't rare quadrennial feats for Kashyap back in April 2015. Back then, he was still India's undisputed no.1 men's singles player. A couple of months later he was in the top 10 of the World rankings. Since then an avalanche of injuries has seemingly buried him. Shoulder, shin, back, abdomen have all been patched up. Now in the midst of yet another comeback, his ranking is now in the mid-fifties.

He's a married man now. In big tournaments, he's seen not on the court, but rather in the coach's stool, where he watches and strategises for wife Saina Nehwal.

But Kashyap, 32, isn't a coach and as his performance in Delhi proves, he isn't done yet. "For sure I can see myself as a coach. For sure one day I will quit and see myself in the coach's chair. But for now I see myself playing for as long as possible," he says confidently.

It isn't as if Kashyap's body has miraculously turned new. It's true he no longer plays with any tape strapped around a dodgy joint, but the niggles are still there. "I'm still struggling with my fitness. I can't lie about it. I have been playing a lot of tournaments. Post injury, 2016 and 2017 were very hard. Even in 2018, I wasn't getting any kind of rhythm. I am struggling. There were two stints where I missed tournaments and practice because of a shin fracture and back pain. I am still struggling," he admits.

But Kashyap has given up attempting to be in perfect shape. It's just not going to happen. In that pursuit, he was losing out on tournament time and with it the feel for elite competition. As a consequence any return was short-lived and caused even more frustration.

Instead of taking a long break in order to train, Kashyap says he's simply looking to play as many tournaments as possible and train when he can. "I'm trying to both train and play because when I was training and then coming back to a match, there was just no match practice. It's so competitive that you cant go on without match practice right now," he says. The lack of playing time would show in situations he simply hadn't planned for. "Things like service returns, movements, connecting with shots. When crucial points are there, say a 6-3 situation. If you win you go 7-3 but if you lose, you go 6-4. These things you only realise during a competition. It's the feel of playing in a tournament. In practice no matter how much you push, it isn't the same as during a tournament. Match practice is really important and I was missing that," he says.

"I want to be in contention of the medal and not just participate." Kashyap on Tokyo 2020

Which is why Kashyap has been playing tournaments almost non-stop since the Dutch Open in November last year. "Right now I just have to play. Right from PBL, I have been just playing. There was the marriage and no training after that but I was just playing," he says.

Even a viral flu that hospitalised him at the Indonesia Masters in January this year didn't stop him. He headed to the national championships soon after, getting four days of training between competitions.

Kashyap isn't planning on slowing down anytime soon. "Maybe if by the Olympic qualification period if I can be within the top 30, I can plan out my tournaments. But till then, I'm going to keep playing," he says.

It's a bold tactic and Kashyap is still trying to figure out whether that's what he needs to do. Unfortunately for him, there's no way of telling. "You have to unlearn a lot of things because your body isn't the same as it was when you were 20 or 25. This is a new thing that I'm trying to figure it out. I don't think anyone can really tell me what to do. Even Gopi sir (national coach Pullela Gopichand) can't tell me. My situation and my body is different from what he dealt with. Even Gopi sir finished his career before he was 30. I'm trying to figure it out at 31-32," he says.

What gives him the motivation to carry on is the fact that there are others in international badminton like Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei who are doing it. "The two of them are three years senior to me and they have still found a way to keep going. So it is possible. I just have to find the way that works for me," he says.

His target, if his body keeps up with his desire is to play at the Tokyo Olympics. The quarterfinal spot at the India Open is a confidence booster if nothing else. "This quarters finish is a good thing after a long time. Plus, I go up the rankings. I have not been qualifying for super 1000 and 750 for long because my rankings are not good," he says.

It is a difficult task but Kashyap will always back himself. "It is tough. I have been number one for our country for long. Missing Rio was big setback. I want to perform this year and perform well to make it to Olympics. I want to be in contention of the medal and not just participate. I know it's possible. There are athletes who have reached a new level of fitness even past thirty and I know it isn't like in the past when the moment you crossed 29, everyone expected you to quit. If I can achieve my goals, I will prove a big point. I have the game, I have the experience. It's just about my body being alright and supporting me for next few months," he says.