Badminton hits restart with thermal checks but no gyms

Ashwini Ponnappa (right) during a training session at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bengaluru. Susan Ninan/ESPN

Lakshya Sen goes through his new training module -- net tumbles, half-smashes, clears and side-to-side movements -- built around skill practice. It's almost three months since Sen, 18, was last in a competitive badminton match, at the All-England in Birmingham, and his new routine, training at 50-60 per cent of the regular intensity, will allow him to feel his way back into the game.

He's one of a dozen players going through their paces at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) on the outskirts of Bengaluru. It's 9:30am and the large, high-roofed hall with 10 courts has 14 players going about their training session. Like Sen, these are players returning to training after more than two months of being cooped up in their homes.

Starting again, finding reflexes

Housed within the Padukone-Dravid Centre of Excellence, the academy has taken the first and what's proving to be the most labyrinthine step for a majority of training centres in the country: Hitting re-start. A thermal check and three squirts of pedal-push hand sanitizer later, you're inside the playing hall. The health protocol is clear: There are standing instructions for players to sanitize hands every 30 minutes and not to do stretches on the floor, bring their own mats and for the gym to remain a no-go area. There are no disinfection booths, though, as one had imagined, and masks -- not a practical accessory for sweaty, focused players -- aren't in sight.

"When we got in touch with the coaches, players and parents with our plan to resume training, not one of them said no," says Vimal Kumar, head coach and director, PPBA. "It was completely optional. Players had the choice to start training later if they weren't comfortable. But everyone was happy to jump right in." Of the total 65 trainees at the academy, only 16 are currently in the city.

What may have taken a particularly hard punch in the extended weeks away from court, Vimal says, is players' reaction time. The doubles session once a week is centred on summoning the reflexes.

"When a smash comes in, the tendency of any player is to outstretch only the playing arm, while the rest of the body isn't in position to defend," he says. "Players won't forget their strokes if they don't train for a few months, but their reaction time can get slower. It's what we're trying to recover now. To level up from fitness to match fitness might take more than a couple of weeks but as an elite athlete, you cannot sit back and say that you'd only play tournaments once you're completely ready. Start with the smaller tournaments once the circuit resumes, and as you play more matches you'll get there."

To keep trainees in touch with their reflexes, Vimal's communication to them during the past two months was clear -- try lots of one-step shadow movements with rackets, with an emphasis on side-to-side movements and to use a heavy racket (or with head cover) during smashes, drives and underarm movements to keep the playing arm in shape.

Lakshya jogs off the court for a break and rests on the wooden bench beside his rolled-up fluorescent green mat. "I know I'm not starting from zero," says the Uttarakhand teen, who made his All-England debut this year, "At home I did a lot of wall practice and dribbles during these weeks of lockdown. Physically, I'm in good shape. My body isn't in the habit of putting on weight in general. That helps too."

His father, DK Sen, who's a badminton coach at the academy, turned their living room at home into a makeshift court for the past two months, clearing it of sofas, chairs, coffee table, knick-knacks and hanging a net down the middle. Occasionally he'd tie it across two pillars in the underground parking space of their housing society too.

Of shuttles and huddles

Rummaging through his bag for his water sipper, Lakshya fills us in on the little things that players are now constantly mindful of, like not sharing belongings or equipment. Sports Authority of India's SOP suggesting that players use their own shuttles, though, has been tough to put into practice in regular, serious sparring. "In smaller clubs, they are colour-coded and players only pick up shuttles assigned to them, but it's not practical at the scale and intensity we train at," says Sagar Chopda, coach at the academy. He's feeding shuttles to senior Indian doubles player Ashwini Ponnappa at the far end of the playing hall. The two-time Commonwealth gold medallist has her knees bent at a 45 degree angle, her non-racket left foot a step forward and her racket held up at waist level, as she puts away flick serves while maintaining a stationary position. Recuperating from a calf injury, she has her sessions light now, primarily focused on two-corner movements and standing strokes.

Now with the academy asking players to maintain a three-metre distance between each other, the water-break player huddles are thinner. "Out of force of habit, players can wipe their foreheads off sweat and drop it on court or sit together post sessions, which we try to minimize as much possible. Unless they're living in the same house, players have been asked not to travel together to and from the academy," says Chopda. Putting the emphasis on self-regulation, if a player has symptoms or even a cold, they are obliged to inform coaches and stay out of training. They've also been advised not to eat out or visit friends' homes. "We don't want to be policing our players. We've briefed them about the safety guidelines and reminded them that what they have now, which many others across sport still don't, is the chance to train. They shouldn't scuttle it by being careless," says Vimal.

"Players won't forget their strokes if they don't train for a few months, but their reaction time can get slower. It's what we're trying to recover now." Vimal Kumar, head coach and director, PPBA

Push to play

Vimal is removed from the general vexation around the pandemic. He believes holing up elite athletes in their homes, away from tournaments and training venues is doing serious disservice.

Badminton England is in touch with Vimal, who spent a chunk of his playing career in the country, seeking him out for restart suggestions. "They're looking at June 7 as a possible date now for training resumption but they're yet to take a call," he says. "I've shared with them how we are going about things here. There are no secrets. Everyone wants to begin somewhere and now is the right time."

The academy's outstation athletes -- who largely fall between ages 13 and 16 -- are also now itching to be back. Vimal, though, has requested them to wait until quarantine norms for inter-state travel are relaxed. From running at 20 per cent strength currently, once more players pour in, sessions will have to be further staggered and living arrangements tweaked. Most of the players live in groups of seven or eight, which may have to be broken down.

"There's no reason to go bonkers over the top athletes. These are young, healthy individuals with high immunity levels we're talking about. Elite athletes have standards to maintain and a responsibility to their sport. They can't be asked to wait around till a vaccine is available. They'd fold up by then," says Vimal.

He supports parent body BWF's plan to resume the circuit in August for the larger message it's sending out to players. Vimal plans to conduct internal tournaments at the academy to keep players on their toes. "Whether you're a coach or an administrator, what you can do now is give players hope. Encourage them to train, rather than sit at home and give up on any events taking place at all."

Lakshya, too, agrees that the revamped calendar with competitions starting in two months' time has suddenly propped up a goal before him. "At the start I thought to myself, this is it...the next nine months are gone. It's hard to stay motivated when there's nothing ahead. I'm not overthinking travel right now. I'll just be happy to play wherever I can."

The training session wrapped up, players promptly break off and load into their vehicles. There's no hanging around by the bottom of the stairs or the side of the curb after hours for backslapping small talk. That has now crossed over to a strictly online activity. A small price, they'd vouch, to be back on court.