Why Saina's bronze has the sparkle of gold

Jane Barlow/PA Wire

I left the Karnataka State Badminton Association that November evening last year with a dull ache in my heart. We had talked as she lay on the floor, drenched in sweat, being treated by a trusted physio.

This young woman, still only all of 26, was confronting an agonising prospect. Was her knee damaged beyond repair? Was she destined to hobble away from the courts never to return? Was this scarcely believable career, built through gumption, ferocity and an unrelenting spirit, simply going to splinter to pieces because of a malfunctioning body part?

On that November evening, it sure sounded like that. Well, she sure sounded like that.

"Many people will think my career will end and I won't come back," Saina Nehwal told me, distant eyes revealing much more than the forced smile that sat on her exhausted face. "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 will board a flight back to India from Glasgow shortly. Her luggage will include a medal from the World Championships. No big deal really, you'd think, when the statistical highlights of her career are tabulated in black and white. She won a silver when the World Championships were last contested in 2015. She's won an Olympic bronze. She has won more Superseries titles than all of India's badminton players put together - male and female. She's been No. 1 in the rankings.

So, one minor medal. No big deal?

If only it was just that. One minor medal. If only it were no big deal.

Sportspersons have an intimate equation with pain. They understand it resides within them. In varying degrees of intensity, but they learn to embrace its presence. Except, there are times when it hurts so much, you tremble. It is guttural, vicious, unrelenting. It demands concession, it gnaws away at confidence, it chips away at belief, it makes you wonder if anything is really worth this?

"Even if I win a tournament," Saina told me that November evening, "the happiness is not so much because of the amount of pain the injury gives."

At her third Olympics in Rio just a little over a year ago, Saina had played with a chipped bone in her knee. Try walking sometime with one. Not a twisted ankle or a pulled hamstring. A broken bone, floating inside as you slide and smash, retrieve and slither, sprint and hop. It was a typically pig-headed decision, premised on the capacity from within to "manage" pain.

While seeking to understand Saina, those around her insist, you must understand her propensity to inflict torture on herself. In training or in competition play. When a specialist surgeon looked at her scans, he is believed to have been gobsmacked that she even entered a competitive sporting arena.

Saina doesn't get the fuss. So what if it hurts? Playing badminton isn't fun for her. It isn't about having a good time. When little Saina, encouraged by her badminton loving and playing parents, was first handed a racquet, she learnt to switch her setting to beast mode. Sweat, pain, intensity - these became companions. In years to come, they would serve her well. She respected pain, it was an ally, almost a friend. It drove her.

"I started playing badminton because my parents liked this sport, I didn't like it," she told me. "I just wanted to give my best and win as much as possible."

So here she is. Headed back from Glasgow, not having won the whole thing, but an unmistakable winner nevertheless. Among her three scalps at the tournament was the world's third-ranked player. Saina herself has slipped to 16th. These months, since surgery after wretched Rio, have been faltering. She's won a minor tournament in Malaysia but not made a final in the 10 others she's participated in.

Even to the untrained eye, it was visible as the contest wore on against Nozomi Okuhara in the semi-final that Saina ran out of fuel. She will return to the training court, aware that in a sport that demands brutal fitness levels, at 27, she is running up the proverbial mountain. However, Saina is quite clearly relishing this process of reconstruction. The dark days are behind her, and for that reason alone, this bronze has the sparkle of gold. It is merely a pit stop, albeit a significant one, as she seeks to reclaim the territory that has been ceded.

"I love attention, I want more attention and people wanting me to win," she was quoted in the Indian Express after taming Korean world No. 3, seeded second, Sung Ji Hyun in the pre-quarterfinals. "I had a very hard injury. But I realise that you can't be at the top at all times. Let us see. Still, I'm not at 100 per cent. I'll be very happy the day I play at my best. That day I'll come and tell you I'm back."

We will wait to hear from you Saina. We are just glad you are playing again!