Six months ago, Saina Nehwal left the Dubai Super Series finals with one victory to her name, over world no. 1 Carolina Marin. She had entered the tournament with an achilles tendon injury, which had, for a while, made it quite painful for her to walk around in shoes. In the run-up to Dubai, she had not been able to attempt anything other than standing shots on the practice court, and was dealing with acute abdominal muscle pain.
In three months she would turn 26, in another eight, she needed to be in Rio. Her body, always resilient, sturdy, strong legs, square shoulders, an engine that stoked her drive and ambition, was not responding like it always had.
Fast forward to last weekend, to Sydney and the Australian Open. Saina lost a single game on her way to the first title in the year, brushing aside the two players who were to swap the world No. 2 and No 4 rankings that week - Ratchanok Intanon from Thailand and Wang Yihan, against whom she had a 4-11 head to head record. The astonishing turnaround is the result of months of specialized strength and conditioning training, which, her coaches say, she approached with focus and determination.
Her success - both in terms of her on-court performance and physical resilience - has proved to her support team, head coach Vimal Kumar and strength coach Deckline Leitao, that she is now repaired following several months of injuries, relapses and disappointing results, and ready for Rio.
Leitao watched the Australian Open final with Vimal Kumar and was pleased by her movement on court, a "nice balance between light and strong." The title victory, he says, "is completely to Saina's credit, but I want to make sure she moves well, which she was and that was very pleasing to see because of the injuries she has been through."
Saina came to Leitao through Vimal Kumar last October, following that achilles tendon injury. Her victory over Marin, Leitao said, marked her as "very unique" because, "she went on to beat Marin with less than 50 percent of her movement efficiency." It was perhaps mind over matter in that case but the matter that needed attending to, following her exit from Dubai with one win in the round-robin year ending event.
During the most severe period of her injury, what Saina was able to do was undertake two sessions a day of a specialised strength and conditioning programme calibrated to her specific demands as a top flight badminton player. Her injury was an "overuse strain injury" brought about due to wear and tear of a badminton career in which, Leitao says, "painkillers help you for one match, but doesn't help your structure."
Saina had excelled so long thanks to genetically strong body structure of strong legs and shoulders, an innate grit and a hunger for excellence; after around 25, Leitao says, the structure of most professional athletes requires bolstering. "Athletes use their bodies all these years and they start to have niggles at this point. Back issues, joints, your find power is lost, plus you are against younger players. Saina playing against an 18-year-old can't have the advantage that she did, unless she maintains that strength and gets better. That's when the physical becomes a dominant factor. If you see 19-year-olds they just move fast because their physical strucutre hasn't been used, they are at the early phases of their careers."
After more than a decade in badminton, Saina had "reached the end of that structure's capacity," and needed to have it specifically attended to.
Leitao's focus is not on Saina's results but something more fundamental - her movement. "As a strength coach I only look at her movement - a lot of people try to take credit, Oh look she won so, here we are... it's not at that at all. The credit always goes to the athlete. She didn't win because of me, she won because of how she played, but have I made her move faster, last longer and be pain free? That's my responsibility."
A sports performance specialist who has worked with elite Indian athletes across boxing, swimming, archery among others, Leitao says Saina's approach to her sport is unlike any other Indian athlete in his professional experience. "She is a truly professional sports person. When she's on, she will give 200 percent. She's clear about what she does, she looks at the results. Like training with Vimal, is it helping me? Or has training with Deckline, has it helped me reduce my injury? If it is good, then she'll do it."
Leitao says Saina wears her success and fame lightly. "She doesn't need any pampering. The game she knows is not about, Oh she's a celeb, so she needs to hear nice things said about her. She knows, this is to be done to be better, she will do it."