"It is okay, many people will think my career will end and I won't come back. I also think somewhere deep in my heart that maybe it is the end of my career, so let's see how it is. Maybe, you never know."
Saina Nehwal is stretching after a long training session at the Karnataka Badminton Association courts in Bangalore. Her knee hurts. It's only been a few weeks since it went under a surgeon's knife. It hurts when she lunges. It hurts when she leaps to smash. It hurts when she slides sideways to retrieve. This damn knee that started hurting a week before she was to leave for Rio de Janerio for her third Olympic games. That hurt all the way on the flight there. That really hurt as she hobbled through her first match. That excruciatingly hurt as she limped out of the Games on losing her second match.
It has been a little over a week since Saina got back on the training court. It has been hard. Coach Vimal Kumar, a genial man with a warm smile, is in no hurry. He intentionally mellows the intensity of their sessions. Saina, usually a terrier around court, is visibly slower. Her movements are noticeably lethargic, her mobility obviously impaired. Being bed ridden for over a month has meant there's been no access to the gym. So she is carrying a couple of extra kilos.
She grunts and moans as shuttles fall in front of her despairing racquet. She hollers an "Arrey" as false shots clamp into the net. She flails her arms exasperated as she fails to reach one. Once the world's top ranked player, Saina can feel it, deep in her heart, that at least in this moment she is a shadow of the beastly athlete with the glittering CV. She is learning to accept. To concede.
"I just want to work hard, I just want to take care of my body and keep working on the areas that were weak and not think about winning or losing," she philosophically muses. "I will be more than happy if people think I am finished, it is nice in a way, people think a lot about me, maybe now they won't!
"I am going to think about the next one year, it is year by year now, I am not going to set a target for the next 5-6 years now. My mind may change in the next one, two or three years, so for me it is just about how to take care of my body and be in good shape because these injuries are quite painful. Even if I win a tournament, the happiness is not so much because of the amount of pain the injury gives."
In sport, pain is a professional hazard. Athletes learn to embrace its presence within their bodies. In Rio, as a vicious pain sent tremors through her tiny frame, Saina stayed resolute, never allowing the world outside access to the agony. On inspecting her knee when she returned, the surgeon operating on Saina was gobsmacked she even stepped onto court. For Saina, once she was at the Olympics, not competing was not a choice. It was confronting the demons when she returned that was the real challenge. She remembers turning one night to her mother, a constant companion through the ups and downs, to ask, "This is so painful, what will happen now?"
"Kya ho guya, nothing has happened, just play", Saina remembers hearing from her mother in response. "She is the one who has made me stand here again today, she is always supporting me. I am so happy I have such wonderful parents who in the worst times also are very strong. So many parents crack at such a point, but hats off to both of them, so very strong, more than me I would say."
Besides her mother and the ever encouraging Vimal, Saina also found specialist advice from Heath Matthews, an expert in sports science and medicine who is working out of Mumbai. As she lay in bed after surgery, Saina remembers Matthews' assuring voice telling her "Don't worry, we will make you get back soon." An achilles tendon issue had scuppered the latter half of her season last year and forced her out for the first three months of 2016. The flare up in her knee ahead of Rio has alerted Saina to a pattern. Matthews and his team are now focused on strengthening her legs and gluteal muscles - in essence rebuilding her body after years of rigorous work on an ultra-competitive circuit.
The return to competitive play is being carefully charted out. For now, Saina is entered to play at the China Open from November 15, followed by the Hong Kong Open from November 22. A final call on her participation will be taken in the next few days. Saina says she is keen "just to play matches" without concerning herself with the results. She recognises that she won't be "100%" even if she does step onto the court in China but insists she will "try her best." Her endeavour is to stay in contention for the year ending Superseries Finals in Dubai, contested between an elite field of the world's top eight players. Saina is currently eighth on the rankings table for this event, which is tabulated differently to the world rankings. She can sneak in with reasonable performances at these two tournaments.
However, it is blatantly evident that her body isn't willing just yet to fully co-operate with a desperate mind. At the end of a several rapid exchanges with her sparring partner, Saina gulps in air and bends over for an extended period to gather her breath. When she rests courtside, toweling the sweat down, a steely gaze, seemingly staring into nothing overtakes her face. Around her, eager kids are learning the ropes, hustling around an arena reverberating with the sounds of shuttles exploding off racquets. Saina Nehwal, all of 26 years old, already sounds like she has lived a lifetime in the sport.
"It does mean a lot to me because otherwise I wouldn't be back here playing," she says. "I started playing badminton because my parents liked this sport, I didn't like it. I just wanted to give my best and win as much as possible. I am happy that I have won so much - the number one ranking, an Olympic medal, a world championship medal, stood on the podium for all the big events - so I am happy about that. I don't have to set any target now, it is just to stay fit and if I am happy and doing well, the results will follow but I am not thinking much about that at the moment."
It is time to get back up. To play. Keep hurting, you damned knee.