Saina Nehwal spent her birthday evening on Tuesday lifting weights at a joint gym session with husband and fellow badminton player, Parupalli Kashyap. For a couple whose lives are wound tightly around sport, it doesn't seem like a particularly odd choice. "Everything is shut, we can't go out or invite friends over," says Kashyap, who together with Saina got back from Birmingham last weekend, "So this seemed like a good way to spend time together and also get some work done."
On the day Saina turned 30, of which Kashyap has been a part of for roughly two thirds, it was only fitting to have the husband-confidant-coach, pick the brightest, most enduring memories of her career and have us tag along the journey.
Philippines Open quarterfinals, 2006
She'd just turned out in her first Commonwealth Games a few months prior to the tournament and was thrilled that [coach] Vimal Kumar sir had given her a chance to play a couple of matches. Aparna [Popat] was the No.1 Indian women's singles player then. Saina beat the top seed in the team event and lost a close match in the individuals. She went to Philippines with the feeling that she could after all get somewhere at the international level.
Her quarterfinal opponent was the then World No. 4 and tournament top seed, Germany's Xu Huaiwen. Saina lost the first game 12-21 and was trailing 8-13 in the second. She managed to turn it around 21-17 and won the decider too with an identical score-line.
I was also in Manila for the tournament then and after the match, we went out for dinner to a mall. I still remember the look on her face. She just couldn't believe she had won. It opened up a whole new mental vista for her.
We'd been training together since 2002 in Hyderabad but I'd known Saina from 1997, when I first spotted her at a summer camp at the LB stadium. I was part of the senior group of trainees. I left for Bangalore the next year so we were not in touch. We didn't use phones back then. When I returned to Hyderabad after three years, Saina was a junior star. She was winning pretty much all the age group events. The only player she lost to then was Krishna Deka Raja. Saina was just 12 when she played Krishna in the Under-19 nationals in Guntur in 2002 and lost. By 2004, Gopi sir started helping us with sessions, we had the World Juniors too that year.
It was around that time that we started seeing each other. It was more the school kind of romance, innocent and more about telling your peers that you had a boyfriend/girlfriend.
She was the only player among us who was winning a lot on the national circuit and she made sure she always had the latest Nokia phone while I carried what looked like an ancient, clunky, white phone whose battery had to taken off once a while.
She made the final in Philippines but the rest of the team, including me, were to leave for the next tournament on the circuit, in Singapore on Sunday morning, the day of the final. Saina won her final against Japan's Ai Goto. The unseeded 16-year-old from India became the first Indian female player and the youngest in Asia to win a four-star tournament.
I really wanted to stay back and watch her play but there was no way on earth I could announce to the coaches and everyone else on the team that she was my girlfriend. We both weren't open about our relationship yet and we still hadn't gotten anywhere as professional players either. The coaches would have surely whacked my a**.
Beijing Olympics, 2008
It was the year India woke up to Olympic sport. Saina got to the quarterfinals, where she faced Indonesia's Maria Kristin Yulianti. She won the first game and was leading 11-3 in the second, but somehow from there it all just fell apart. She lost the second game and the decider from an eight-point lead.
I was sobbing before the TV back in India. I just couldn't imagine how it had gone wrong.
But Saina had already announced herself to the world. She'd beaten fourth seed Hong Kong's Wang Chen in the previous round, which was remarkable. It marked her out to be among the best in the world. I knew how much an Olympic medal meant to her. Even at the Under-10 level when the rackets were twice our size and most of us had no clue what an Olympics was, she would babble about winning gold someday.
Indonesia Open final, 2009
I remember watching her semi-finals against China's Lu Lan with senior Indian players Anup Sridhar, Chetan Anand, Jwala Gutta and Shruti Kurien at the venue in Jakarta.
None of us could believe what was unfolding on the court before us. Within my heart, I was really rooting for Saina but my mind lacked the belief that she could beat a Chinese player. Back then, Chinese women's singles players were practically invincible. They won almost all the tournaments on offer through the year-round circuit. The finals were also usually an all-China affair.
She made the finals, but as usual the rest of us who hadn't, had to leave for the next tournament in Singapore. I watched the final in my hotel room and it was an unbelievable feeling. She beat Wang Lin to become the first Indian to win a Superseries tournament.
We spoke over the phone after that and I could sense something within her had changed. She now believed she could beat anyone. It was almost like the flick of a switch.
Commonwealth Games, 2010
I've never seen Saina as tense as she was at the final that year. She was ranked No. 3 in the world and in a match played before home crowds, she was the obvious favourite. They'd come to see her win. She lost the first game 19-21 against Malaysia's Mew Choo Wong and was a match-point down in the second.
The match was terrible for my heart. The rallies were endless, both of them retrieved madly and I was almost feeling feverish by the end of it. I was sitting just behind the court from where the baseline wasn't visible. On the final point, Saina had tapped and I saw Wong celebrate. I wasn't sure what had happened. My heart was in my mouth. The umpire called it in and I literally jumped up in my seat.
It was a huge burden off her. I almost felt both of us, her on court and me in the stands, collectively heave a sigh of relief.
Indonesia Open, 2012
Saina's quarterfinal match against Wang Shixian must be the craziest match I've ever watched.
I'd won my quarterfinal in the afternoon and came over to the venue to watch her play in the evening. Before getting there, I had this nice mental chat with myself to stay calm and not go on an overdrive with my emotions since I had a match the next day. It lasted three games and I must have been the loudest person in the stadium. I was yelling my lungs out cheering for her. It was a match that could push you off the edge.
They both had similar styles of play, gritty retrievers and neither had a winning finishing shot. They both fought till one just went off breath. I was drained just watching them. It was almost like I'd played a three-setter too.
Commonwealth Games final, 2018
Saina had lost to [PV] Sindhu at the India Open the previous year and it was followed by a lot of uncharitable comments from most quarters on how she was over the hill. I've seen the kind of challenges she's had to overcome with her body over the past few years but people don't want to hear explanations.
Honestly, Saina has been pretty confident against Sindhu on most occasions. She doesn't go into a match thinking, 'Oh, I've to win this because it's Sindhu'.
The CWG final in Gold Coast was a high-paced, entertaining one. In matches between them, the pressure is usually on Saina since she's the senior, more experienced player. I imagine Sindhu must feel like the underdog even though she's higher ranked perhaps.
It wasn't the best match Saina played but it certainly shut a lot of talk.
Saina and I go so far back now that it's hard to separate the years or point to a trajectory.
We still have stupid fights. Hell raising ones which leave our friends almost suffering panic attacks and wondering how things are going to be normal again. "We're still doing the same things that we did 15 years ago, shame on us," is what we tell each other at the end of most fights and then laugh our heads off.
We'd be back in five minutes, talking like nothing ever happened. It annoys our friends to no end who are worried crazy for us. Between both of us, there's just too much of a comfort zone. Sometimes it feels like nothing has changed since our early days. I always keep telling her we should never take each other for granted. People fall out of love too soon these days. What works for both of us is we're mentally somewhat of our parents' generation, who believe in fixing things when they go wrong and not throw it out at the first instance.
All the talking and gyaan is on me. She doesn't do much of that. Doubling up as her coach has added a layer of complexity to our relationship. During training, in a fit of anger I often say things. Before we got married, she would often look at me disturbed and reply, "Why are you talking to me like this? Do you love me or no?" Now she says, "Kashyap you're my husband too. Why can't you say something nice?" It just hits me then and I get myself to mellow down. It's a tricky path really, but we're in it together.