Saina Nehwal-Parupalli Kashyap: A power couple on the shuttle to success
The first star of modern-day Indian badminton, Saina Nehwal kickstarted the revolution the sport underwent in India with a quarter-final appearance at her maiden Olympics at Beijing 2008.
Four years later, she went on to become the first Indian badminton player to stand on an Olympic podium with her bronze medal at London 2012 and then scaled new heights when she was ranked world number one by the Badminton World Federation a few years later.
Another name pivotal to the rise of Indian badminton has been Parupalli Kashyap, who rose to prominence with his bronze at the 2010 Commonwealth Games
At the 2012 London Olympics, he beat Niluka Karunaratne to become the first male shuttler from India to reach the quarter-final at the Games.
He broke further ground when he won the gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, becoming the first male Indian badminton player to do so in 32 years.
Parupalli Kashyap and Saina Nehwal, two of Indian badminton’s biggest names, have been together for the incredible highs and the low points of injuries and loss of form.
They have been a couple for more than a decade, officially tying the knot in 2018.
That journey took its first steps in Hyderabad, a city that has become synonymous with badminton in the decade gone by.
The early years
Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap knew each other from a camp in 1997 but only started meeting regularly in 2002 when they trained together in Hyderabad.
When the current chief national team coach, Pullela Gopichand set up his badminton academy in 2004, the duo shifted to train under him and they started dating in the period before the World Junior badminton championships that year.
“It was the school kind of romance, innocent and more about telling your peers that you had a boyfriend/girlfriend,” Parupalli Kashyap admitted to ESPN years later.
The pair also shared a rivalry during practice sessions due to Saina Nehwal’s constant desire to be the best.
“There is competition even while you train and I was determined to be better than Kashyap, even in training. It’s not that I didn’t like him winning. But the competitive feeling is too much,” the Indian badminton star explained to The Indian Express.
The relationship grew stronger as the impressive youngsters travelled around the world together for tournaments and had each other for moral and emotional support at every event.
Coincidentally, the previous decade had been a classic case of two halves for both Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap.
It began with the 2010 Commonwealth Games, where they both returned with medals, the former with a gold and the latter, bronze.
At the 2012 London Olympics, they made new records – Saina Nehwal won Indian badminton’s first Olympic medal while Parupalli Kashyap became the first Indian male shuttler to reach the quarter-finals.
It was the result of many years of hard work and grind, aided by a new, high-intensity training regime that Pullela Gopichand put them both through before the Games.
“We had never trained like that before and it made us fitter and ready for fast-paced matches going into the Olympics. Had Saina not had a bout of fever before the Olympics, she would have been even better prepared,” Parupalli Kashyap recalled to veteran journalists Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta in their book, Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympic Games.
A year later, the latter missed out on his maiden BWF World Championships medal by a single point while Saina Nehwal also fell one step short of the semi-finals.
In 2014, Parupalli Kashyap won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the first male Indian badminton star to do so since Syed Modi in 1982, and Saina Nehwal won her maiden Asian Games medal - a bronze - the same year.
Saina Nehwal then raised the bar even higher, becoming the top-ranked women’s singles player in 2015 and went on to win silver at the World Championships, her first medal at the event.
Later in the year was when they would need each other the most.
In October 2015, Parupalli Kashyap suffered the first of his major injuries, a calf muscle tear, that would plague him in the years to come and Saina Nehwal was his emotional rock through it.
“We used to be concerned about each other’s results from the start... (When I lost) she would get angry like my mom,” Saina Nehwal’s husband quipped in an interview with Scroll.in.
“She would only tell me that you have to work hard. If I am getting carried away... she would tell me to stay focused and work hard.”
He also missed out on travelling to the Rio 2016 Olympics due to a knee injury sustained a few months prior while Saina Nehwal bowed out early at the event where PV Sindhu announced herself to the world with a historic silver medal.
It was a difficult period for both as they negotiated their turn of fortunes.
“We are going through a similar phase and try to keep each other motivated," Kashyap admitted to ESPN then.
“We try to learn, help and improve from one another. Between us, we exchange inputs on everything - training, how much to push our bodies, recovery sessions and even planning tournaments.”
Saina Nehwal’s spouse -- and coach
With regular injuries denting his career’s progress, Saina Nehwal’s spouse has taken a new role since mid-2018.
Parupalli Kashyap has often been seen in the coach’s dugout for Saina Nehwal, a process that had been going on unofficially for many years.
"Saina knew she could trust me and at the same time, I really couldn't train because of my own injury so I thought the least I can do was throw some shuttles to her," he stated.
Parupalli Kashyap mainly helps her out with the technical aspects of the game, an area he feels he is better at, and coupled with Saina Nehwal’s mental strength, it bore fruit at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
The Indian badminton veteran had slowly started regaining her form and was up against PV Sindhu in the final of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where she beat the latter in straight games to win her second gold at the event.
And as the couple train together and work hard in their bid to make it to the Tokyo Olympics for another possible shot at a medal, they realize the need to support each other more than ever.
“Sometimes it feels like nothing has changed since our early days. I always keep telling her we should never take each other for granted,” Kashyap said.