New Delhi: Seven months after they last entered the court, Indian badminton's power couple Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap have undertaken a slow and steady route to reclaim peak form, and the road to redemption, after a prolonged period of inactivity, has a major pit stop " fitness.
Kashyap, 34, and Saina, 30, are at the age where athletes typically tend to mature. They develop a better understanding of their craft and greater equanimity towards results. What they lose, in turn, is quick recovery and reflexes, which again puts a lot of premium on the right kind of fitness training.
"Fitness is the key. For us, at this age and stage of our careers, it is more about training smart than hard," Kashyap told Firstpost.
"I am 34, so the body is obviously not responding the way it did when I was 20. Both Saina and I realise that we have already played the sport for more than 15-20 years, and our bodies are not what they used to be when we are 19-20. But, we have gained a lot of experience and have good skill sets. At this stage of our careers, we need to keep our bodies as fit as possible and try to be consistent at the top level. Fitness is the biggest concern. It is what we train for every day and it helps us execute our skills on the court."
Parupalli Kashyap recommends a slow and steady return to fitness. File image
Before the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the badminton calendar, Kashyap had lost each of his four first-round matches of the year, while Saina had endured opening-round reversals in three of the five occasions. She did, however, reach the quarter-finals each time she crossed the first hurdle. Saina, the London Games bronze medallist, was in a race against time to qualify for the Olympics before the calendar was thrown off gear by the coronavirus. The Badminton World Federation froze the rankings, but it gave the Indian stars enough time to plan their bid for the now-deferred Tokyo Olympics.
Kashyap, however, cautions against any knee-jerk training. A slow and steady approach, he believes, will help him and Saina gain peak fitness, and eventually, the desired form.
"It is important to start slow; it is as if you are coming from an injury-induced layoff. Start with basics. What I have learned is that if you haven't trained for three days, your fitness levels go down, and here we haven't trained for weeks together. Obviously, your base fitness, base endurance, and base speed go for a toss. Every basic component of fitness needs to be trained slowly and steadily. If you push too hard, your body can breakdown and you may get injured. This is particularly true for senior athletes like me and Saina. If we really push ourselves to the limit straightaway, we'll get injured for 2-3 weeks. As top players, we don't think of working hard, but working smart," he explained.
Both Kashyap and Saina withdrew from the Denmark Open that begins on 13 October. Instead, the couple is training to return for the Asian tour that begins in January 2021. There are no immediate goals, and returning to peak fitness remains the only concern.
"We don't have goals as of now. I am just training and improving on the court and becoming stronger physically. That is what we are looking at. In terms of form, I am nowhere near my best currently, but that's alright," former World No 1 Saina said.
Kashyap admitted as much. "With our skill sets and experiences, I think the big results will come if we maintain our bodies. It is tough, but we are trying to be innovative and think for ourselves about how we can improve our bodies. We are working towards it and, hopefully, we can sustain it for a few more years."
The 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medallist had a few niggles to contend with of late to go with a "minor leg injury" that played its part in him opting out of the Denmark tourney.
"I don't see both of us (him and Saina) hitting top form for a month, at least. But, we hope to be ready by January, when tournaments resume," he said.
In terms of speed and reflexes, while Saina claims to not have experienced a major drop yet, Kashyap does feel a bit of sluggishness.
"I'd say we try to achieve the best we can," said Kashyap. "Sometimes, I feel I am not as fast as I was ten years back, but if you train well for two months, you feel you are back to your top speed and reflexes. These have to be trained continuously and the only way to improve any aspect of training - be it speed, endurance, speed, reflexes, or agility - is to train. If you train all these aspects well, more often than not you'll be on top of your game. We trust our coaches and we trust our experiences and skillsets to keep improving."
While fading fitness is a genuine concern, the badminton duo believes that skill sets are more permanent and intrinsic in nature. Saina admitted to some soreness in muscles but said she hasn't felt anything lacking in terms of skills. Kashyap agreed that optimum skills can be restored without a massive effort.
"We have firmed-up our skills for a long period, so it doesn't go away easily. The basic skills remain with you. Just a light brush-up of every shot you play generally is fine and gradually you get back your stroke quality and sharpness. We can obviously learn some new skills, but what we already have never really goes away. I can say it from my experience because I have been away from the game for six months because of knee surgery and another 3-4 months for a shoulder dislocation. When I came back, I was fine with all my shots in a week, but fitness is what takes longer," said Kashyap.
It's not just on the court, the learning continues off it as well for the couple. When not playing and thinking about the game, the couple spends their time upgrading their knowledge base about the world. Saina and Kashyap will bring those interests to the fore when they will be interacting on varied topics with fans online along with other couples from the entertainment and sports arena through Discovery Plus' Big Learning Festival.
"I am always thrilled to learn something new. In our free time as well, you'll always find us trying to learn something new and trying to know something interesting about the world. I am a massive History and wildlife buff and there are so many interesting wildlife, history and army documentaries I have been watching on Discovery Plus," Saina signed off.