As Carolina Marin grasped her stricken right knee and grimaced in pain, Saina Nehwal crossed the net with a look of concern. It wasn't for the first time that Saina had walked over to an opponent who had withdrawn due to an injury sustained during a match. In her international career, Saina has found herself in that situation on five separate occasions - against Yip Pui Yin in the third round of the 2011 World Championships, Wang Xin in the bronze medal match of the London Olympics, Wang Yihan in the semifinals of the 2012 Denmark Super Series and Nozomi Okuhara in the quarterfinals of the 2013 Malaysia Open. While Saina's presence can be marked down to a coincidence, what's not so much of a surprise is the fact that injuries are an increasingly frequent occurrence on the badminton circuit.
In the current women's circuit, only a handful of players are yet to take time off the game to recuperate. After dominating the circuit for most of the past two years, World no.1 Tai Tzu Ying withdrew from the Hong Kong Open with a wrist injury in November last year. She subsequently withdrew in the middle of a game during the season-ending World Tour Finals. Tai looked uncomfortable at the Malaysia Open, where she lost in the quarterfinals a couple of weeks ago before pulling out of the Indonesia Open.
While Tai's wrist is bothering her, Saina's shin has been causing her trouble. Historically the knee joint has almost always been the first to give way. "That's the most common injury in badminton. It's a sport that makes huge demands by way of agility. It's not just about explosiveness in one line but about changing direction at a very high pace. Nearly every joint is under a lot of stress but perhaps knee joint under the most," says Dr. Nikhil Latey, physiotherapist and sports scientist. Latey helped treat Saina while she recovered from her own knee injury, a fracture and patellar tendon impingement in her right knee that she aggravated at the Rio Olympics. But the Indian is far from the only one on the circuit who is playing with that dodgy joint.
Li Xuerui, the 2012 Olympic gold medallist, only returned to the court last year after rupturing her ACL and tearing her lateral meniscus over two years ago in the semifinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Xuerui gave a walkover to Japan's Nozomi Okuhara in the bronze medal match, who in turn has been dealing with her own knee ailment. Two months after winning the 2017 World Title, Okuhara had to withdraw from competition after a buildup of fluid in her knee. Another world champion - Thailand's Ratchanok Intanon, was out of action for the first two months of 2017 owing to trouble with her knee and has said she's always fearful of a relapse. All this isn't an entirely recent phenomenon - former World no.1 from China, Wang Lin's career ended with a knee injury as she bid to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, while the same tournament saw Wang Xin concede the bronze medal to Saina after suffering a knee blowout in the third-place match.
At risk: Older, high intensity players
Latey reckons certain types of players are more susceptible to injuries. "The girls who pick up injuries more often than not are not just those whose game is more aggressive but based on how much they move around the court. What makes things harder is that these girls aren't going to sit back and take things easy. They won't just turn up for a tournament and not be intense. They are going to go in full steam. They are going to keep going hard until it's too late," he says.
But not all players with a high-paced game will pick up injuries. The oldest player in the top ten is Saina, who's 28 and has the injuries to show for it. It isn't much of a surprise that the players who have so far managed to remain unscathed are amongst the youngest on the circuit. But the damage eventually adds up. "A lot of these players who are picking up injuries are now 23-24 (Marin is 25, Intanon and Okuhara both 23, Tai 24, Xuerui was 25 when she picked up her injury). They are coming to the end of their prime playing years. You can put your body under a lot of stress and get away with it but not anymore," says Latey. Beyond that age, the body starts to break down more often than not.
To a sport that by its intensive nature already puts a strain on every human muscle and tendon, players are now expected to play more than ever. When the BWF in 2018 required players to compete in a minimum of 12 World Tour events (up from the 10 they had been expected to do so a year before) many players complained openly. "The schedule is too hectic. We are only human," Saina had said at the India Open last year. "The workload has definitely gone up. Until two years ago, the players had 12 superseries in a year, of which they would play 10. It's become more of an issue since the players are now expected to compete in 12 tournaments. And that's with two months in which they aren't really playing. So it's 10 months in which they are playing back-to-back tournaments," says Latey. "Players will have to prioritise what tournaments they play in. "Once you are past 24, you start to come off the boil. You have to bite the bullet and decide which tournament you have to focus on. You aren't just getting by on talent but by your conditioning," he says.
Returning to fitness
Players understand this too. After her latest loss at the Indonesia Open, Japan's Okuhara mentioned she was not playing any tournament until the All England. "I don't have any injury but I have not recovered enough from the previous tournaments. So I want to focus on resting before I play again," she said after her first round exit in Indonesia. Of course, once the injury occurs, there's no option but to let nature take its own course. Every injury isn't the same and while it took two months following surgery for Saina to even step out on the court in 2016, it took Xuerui two years to return to competitive action.
The nature of Marin's injury remains to be seen, although commentators at the Indonesia Open expected a layoff of several months. Having been in the same situation in the past, Saina could only commiserate. "With these injuries you can't say. Some people recover quickly. It took me a long time to come out of surgery and correct my movements. Everything went here and there for me. I also had a knee injury going into the Olympics, and I was crying like anything. I had to get surgery, so I know how difficult it is to get back from such an injury. But the sport is like that. It is a cruel situation," she says.