Battle-hardened Kashyap hopes to inspire next-gen stars

Parupalli Kashyap lost to Chinese teen Li Shi Feng in the recently-concluded Canada Open. Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

At the end of three games, 70 minutes and a semi-final win on Saturday, Parupalli Kashyap realized he had a tiny problem. He would be all alone - with no coach or physio by his side - for the following day's final at the Canada Open Super 100 in Calgary.

Coach Amrish Shinde and physio Sumansh Sivalanka, who were travelling with the Indian team, had left early for the US Open tournament starting this week. Kashyap turned to teammate HS Prannoy to reschedule his travel and fill in. It's what Kashyap jokes are among the "perks of being a senior", "We both had to travel to California for the US Open so I sold him out on the idea that without me around, he'd be without a hitting partner anyway. I think he was slightly undecided at the start, but these are guys I've known since forever. If I ask them for something, I know they'll do it."

Two years ago around the same time, they had both landed in California for the US Open with little hope of lasting beyond the first couple of rounds. "We both were playing s**t then so we decided that at least we'd go around Los Angeles if we lost early." They ended up playing each other in the final, which Prannoy went on to win. This time, plans are far more sombre - play and not plan what to do after an early loss.

After fairly sapping quarterfinal and semi-final matches at the Canada Open this time, both lasting three games each, Kashyap managed what he calls a "just about par performance" in the final in his loss against Chinese teen Li Shi Feng. Prannoy dutifully played on-court coach but rushing through the third game and pushing for quick points after a tight first game didn't work well for Kashyap.

At 32, plodding his way through the rankings, Kashyap though doesn't find it necessary to label his performances into just wins and losses anymore. This was his first appearance in a final since the Austrian Open International Challenge in February 2018. In between physio sessions before heading to California for the US Open, Kashyap says he's sore from the "hard court conditions". "Right now, it's really only about my body. There has been steady improvement in my performance over the past few months. I've been playing without breaks since the start of the year and the court here (in Calgary) was like an ice skating rink. If BWF (Badminton World Federation) wants us to play so many tournaments in a year they should also ensure that surface and conditions aren't killing our bodies."

"You look at countries like China and Japan, even their second-rung players are well looked after. We can't sit on the efforts of Gopi or wait around for that one extraordinary player." Kashyap

Closer to home, former world no.6 Kashyap has the shorter end of the stick for living outside the top 25 - primarily no tournament funding. He has to flit from one venue country to another across Europe and Asia, living out of his own pocket, keeping himself afloat through the grind of qualification, hassle of logistics and surviving matches. He doesn't mind calling out the incongruities in the system, a cross he wilfully bears as a senior member of the set-up.

"Our second string of players have to be nurtured. We have a quality batch of players, including current national champion Sourabh Verma, who're fending for themselves. You look at countries like China and Japan, even their second-rung players are well looked after. We can't sit on the efforts of Gopi (national coach Gopichand) or wait around for that one extraordinary player. We have to push the pack, take everyone along, only then can we have results."

The training and tournament demands that come with a pre-Olympic year have also had Kashyap and wife Saina Nehwal pushing back their plans of harnessing themselves to a life of domesticity. They went from single to married in December last year, but are yet to set up a home and live together. "A year before the Olympics we didn't want to tinker too much and turn our lives upside down," he says. Different training timings and tournament schedules would have meant that they'd end up being alone most of the time.

With four Indian singles players ranked ahead of him currently, Kashyap is mindful that a spot in the top 16 (primary criteria for Olympic qualification) may be slightly ambitious. He missed the Rio Olympics due to injury, while Saina had an inflamed right knee cut her campaign short and have her heading into surgery soon after. This time he's pushing for Saina -- who's been off court for six weeks now -- to rest, recover, skip the next two events (Indonesia Open and Japan Open) and come back stronger. "Of course I can only offer a suggestion," he says. "The decision to play or pull out of tournaments is eventually hers."

Post-marriage, the odd tournament that they feature in together or on occasions when Kashyap travels with Saina, to the All England Open in March this year for instance, offers them the chance to live as a couple and watch each other play. Kashyap also doubled up as her on-court coach, a role he says he enjoys and is looking forward to transitioning into for the younger crop of players once his career runs itself out. The focus now though is to play as long as his body can weather the rigours of a competitive career. The idea, he says, is to hold out hope. "I want to do it for our players of today. It's only when they see a player from among them push into his 30s and still play on that they'll find reason to stay in the sport longer."