A day after Saina Nehwal announced the end of their three-year association to return to Hyderabad and train at the Gopichand academy, coach Vimal Kumar has urged her to focus on following a "well-structured and planned physical training, off-court programme" to prolong her career. While heaping praise on Saina, who won several tournament titles, two World Championship medals and reached the World number one ranking under his watch, Vimal said his only concern during their time together was Saina's "slight failure" in that aspect of her regimen.
"In the physical training aspects, Saina has slightly failed in my opinion," Vimal told ESPN in Bengaluru. "She should find the right balance, do the right things, then she can remain slightly injury-free. From what I have observed, whenever we push in on-court sessions, the sessions are hard, she will cope with it but over a period of time, she can't take that. That can come only with a very well structured and planned physical training, off-court programme.
"There are good people to assist but she also should listen to them. For Saina, there is nothing moderate or less, that is the way she is. I keep telling her, you are not a teenager now, you cannot do the donkey's work all the time. You have to be a little more planned and systematic, if she can do that I still feel she has three to four good years in her, because her mind is good."
Vimal, a former national champion himself, who has coached at the Prakash Padukone academy in Bengaluru since retiring from competitive badminton in 1994, took Saina under his wing in 2014. Dissatisfied at the lack of personalised attention at the Gopichand academy, Saina turned to Vimal to resurrect her fledgling career. Her decision to return to Hyderabad after three years in Bengaluru with Vimal was premised on utilizing the opportunity to work with the newly appointed singles coach, Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo. Under Handoyo, who coached countryman Taufiq Hidayat to an Olympic Gold, Indian players have enjoyed a period of consistent success over the last few months.
"One important thing that was perhaps missing in Bangalore was her family and friends," Vimal says. "In Bangalore, she was always confined to a small room here. Her mother used to come and stay with her, she put up with all that, I give her a lot of credit.
"As a top player, I think you should not have regrets. You should have the satisfaction that you have tried every possibility. Whether you are successful or not is then up to various factors. She wanted to give it a try and I said yes, you should go ahead. I never even persuaded her to change her mind. I said if you are clear, you are going to get things to your liking and find that mental satisfaction besides being with your family and friends, all that can only help."
Returning to Hyderabad will also mean Saina will once again train at the same facility as PV Sindhu. When Saina left for Bengaluru, Sindhu was still an emerging player though she had won a couple of World championship bronze medals already. Three years on, she has leapfrogged Saina in the world rankings and captured silver medals at the Olympics as well as the recent World Championships, besides pocketing a couple of Superseries titles. Having observed Saina closely, Vimal is convinced that this budding rivalry will spur her on as she enters the next phase of her career.
"Saina loves those situations, she doesn't back off," he said. "She's looking to get back to her best again, that sort of hope she has. I have not seen that in any other sportsperson."
Although Saina is 27, Vimal believes she can still contend for the big prizes in badminton such as World Championship medals, the top spots in the rankings and even Olympic success in 2020 despite the presence of a slew of skilled young players on the circuit in the age group of 22-24. Vimal points to the "equally grueling" tennis circuit as an example, where several players over the age of 30 continue to have success because they have "found ways to stay in good physical shape" and advises Saina to aspire to the same.
Vimal maintains that although Gopichand wasn't "very happy" when Saina decided to move out of his academy in 2014, his own equation with Gopi continues to be on "good terms" and that he will remain available to provide any expertise that may be required to help Saina along. Although their partnership ended rather abruptly, Vimal insists he relished working with Saina, asserting that the major credit for the success she had under his wing was largely down to her own gumption and drive.
"My point always is that 90% it is the player," he said. "You have to have that material. When a person has that sort of a desire, it is easy for the coach. It is tough to get such material as a coach and when you do it is a pleasure to work. I always look at it that way. I enjoyed training sessions with Saina, she was always very enthusiastic, good learner, always positive, gives her 100% in training sessions."