'Physically she needs to get better, but the most important thing is her leg is holding fine.'
Star India shuttler Saina Nehwal, who has recovered from a serious knee injury sustained during the Rio Olympics in August and is back on the international circuit, is still not at her physical best and needs more time to reach that high level, feels her coach Vimal Kumar.
"She is definitely not back to her best and has some way to go before she can aspire to win big tournaments again. She needs some more time, may be in terms of physical and strength aspects in which she needs to improve," said the former national men's champion in Mumbai, on Thursday.
Saina, who underwent surgery after returning from Rio where she failed to progress beyond the first round, made it to the quarter-finals of the Macau Open Grand Prix Gold tournament on Thursday, in which she is the top seed.
"After this (Macau) there's nothing for her till end of January -- the Syed Modi memorial Grand Prix Gold (in Lucknow). Of course PBL (Premier Badminton League) is there (in the first part of January) in which she will play, being one of the big names. But it lasts two weeks and is not a very high intensity competition, in the real sense," said Vimal.
"In another four to six weeks (she should be back to the top level) once she starts high intensity training. She has enough time when she enters that (Modi memorial) competition and if nothing goes wrong, from end-January onwards she will be a strong contender.
"When she comes back (from Macau) we will have to see when she can start high intensity training. I have given all power to the trainer. Their session comes first and on-court badminton comes second. I have told him to ensure that the leg is good. There's enough time. She can do good training and come back," he explained.
Vimal is quite pleased with the way the London Olympics bronze medal winner's injured leg has held up.
"Physically she needs to get better, but the most important thing is her leg is holding fine. Today also she struggled. They are all steady players, playing long rallies and the shuttles (in Macau) are slow," Vimal said.
Vimal said it was Saina's decision to start competing once again after the pain following the surgery had subsided.
"She is someone who thrives on competition. She wanted to know where she stands once she did not feel any pain. When she came back (to the Prakash Padukone Academy in Bengaluru after surgery) for training routine she felt tiredness but her leg was holding well," he said.
"She has played some tough players and it's the third tournament in a row. She lost in the first round and then reached quarter-finals in the second. All these will give her confidence in her climb to the top," Vimal remarked.
"When she says I am okay, it's her body. She's a grown up girl, one of the top players in the world, and knows her body. This I learned from Prakash -- to take responsibility. She said she felt good and wanted to compete.
"Nothing is going wrong with her leg. I am not worried about end results now. There's a lot of scope for improvement and she is not yet at that high level to push those top players. The main thing is 4-5 top players are not there (for one reason or another). The top two Chinese women have retired and Li Xuerei is injured. Ratchanok (Intanon) is injured and Carolina (Marin) is also not there.
"It's good for the next line of players to push and she should just think she is in the next line of players," Vimal elaborated.
He, however, brushed aside any suggestion that in hindsight it would have been better had Saina not competed in the Rio Games after feeling some discomfort before the competition commenced in August.
"She developed this strain, it was the stiffness of the thigh and she felt it four to five days before our departure for the Games. She felt her legs appeared to be heavy. She consulted doctors and they said it was an inflammation of fat pad covering the bone."
According to Vimal, Saina felt stiffness after the first practice session in Rio and wanted to take pain-killing injections and was even looking forward to reaching the quarter-finals before things turned for the worse.
"She took the flight lasting 15 hours from Dubai. And over there (in Rio) we went to the gymnasium, did treadmill run. She said that stiffness was still there the next day morning after the first practice session. She said it was really paining and asked 'Can I take a painkilling injection and play?'.
"She was looking at the quarter-finals. Then physio and Games village doctor all advised against it. Next day she played and felt pain. In that first match she literally struggled. After that she came out and said she was defying everyone. With pain-killer the pain can be masked and she could play.
"She took the injection before the second match, played it with pain as she could not put her foot down. It was really bad but she played with a lot of pain (and lost). We left that night itself from Rio," Vimal revealed.
"After coming over here it was found through scan that the bone, protruding into fat pad, had chipped off. It was floating inside. All the pain killing injections were a waste. Then she was operated. The main thing was all her ligaments were intact and that made her, to some extent, recover fast."
Vimal said all the talks of Saina appearing in the Games despite carrying an injury did hurt her feelings.
"Talks that she had gone there with injury did hurt her. She is someone who is constantly playing for the last seven years. When she plays she wants to win. She could not digest the fact that it happened there, either during the long flight or during one of our training sessions.
"There was no pressure of expectations. All those things never affected her. When the cricketers play there are so many opinions about how they should have played. Compared to that pressure in badminton is nothing. You cannot blame anyone, it just happened to you, and you just accept it. She is just 26, quite young and she is an athlete who wants to win. She is not a politician. Sports people are sensitive," Vimal said.