Saina Nehwal's coach Vimal Kumar is hopeful that she will return to competition in "six to eight weeks" after her knee surgery in Mumbai last week. Saina, he says, can start her rehabilitation work within the next three weeks and he is confident that she can be back playing on the international circuit by November.
Saina underwent surgery after returning from the Rio Olympics, where she lost in the group stage. It was later learnt that she was carrying an injury into the Games.
"The muscles get considerably weak after you undergo a procedure like this," Kumar explained. "Your quadriceps, hamstring, calf area, all need to be strengthened. Nothing is wrong with her other tendons, ligaments, ACL, it is just the cracked bone. How you take this disappointment in your stride, that is the key. She is a tough girl, she can always come back. But yes, the disappointment will be there of what happened at the Olympics."
In hindsight, though, an MRI in Bangalore before the Games would probably have revealed the extent of the injury then and very likely have ruled her out of the Games.
Kumar also spoke of the events leading to Saina's premature departure from the Games. She first complained of "slight discomfort" and pain in the knee a couple of days before their scheduled departure for Rio. Medical experts in Bangalore, where Saina was training, said what she was experiencing was likely to be a "fat pad inflammation", a condition brought upon by the strain athletes who engage in high intensity workouts undergo. She was told not to worry and, with that assurance, Saina boarded the flight for Rio.
At her first workout in Rio, where she arrived on August 8, Saina continued to experience "slight pain", Kumar says, but nothing too worrisome. The pain started to increase when she played her first match against local girl Lohaynny Vicente on August 11. Saina won but was visibly distressed, her 21-17, 21-17 win coming in nearly 40 minutes. A specialist doctor who was consulted prescribed a pain-killing injection.
The medical advice Saina and her team received was that the injection would take a few days to take full effect. Her next match was against Maria Ultina of Ukraine, a player ranked outside the world top 60. Saina, who needed to win this match to make the pre-quarterfinals, calculated that a win here would give the injection time to take full effect and would help her for the later matches. Ultina beat Sania, however, and knocked her out of the Games.
"During the match she started to experience an unbearable amount of pain," Kumar says. "She couldn't even walk immediately after the match."
Saina flew out of Rio that night itself and an MRI on arrival in India revealed that she'd chipped a bone in her knee.
The surgeon who conducted the procedure in Mumbai, Dr. Dinshaw Pardiwala, in fact said that he was amazed that Saina had managed to get through two matches despite such a severe injury. Kumar though wasn't surprised at Saina's insistence to simply grind her teeth, bear the pain and play on.
The timing of Saina's injury was extremely unfortunate, especially as she had recovered from an ankle problem last year to return to the circuit in March. By winning her last tournament, the Australian Open in July, Saina had signalled that she would be among the major contenders for a podium finish at Rio - more so because defending Olympic champion Li Xuerui, who Saina was drawn to take on in the quarterfinals, was also struggling with an injury.
Instead, Saina has now slipped four spots to number nine in the latest rankings and will inevitably drop out of the top-10 in the weeks ahead.