Meet Abdul Wahid, who keeps Lakshya Sen fit & strong

“Ouw. Slipped. How. He’s okkk…”

On either side of the elegantly alarming sighs from commentators Morten Frost and Steen Pedersen during Lakshya Sen’s quarterfinal against Chinese Zhao Jun Peng came a biomechanical boggler for 35-year-old Abdul Wahid sitting in the stands behind the Indian.

This was at 20-20 in the decider, and Sen’s trusted physiotherapist and trainer wasn’t really looking at the shuttler’s little skid, but more at the fate of the shuttle across the court.

“I don’t know how he did it, all credit to Lakshya. I was just very happy it went inside. You know how it is when we are winning against a Chinese shuttler… slight extra pride and joy,” Abdul would describe the scenes as Sen became the second Indian to ensure a Huelva World Championship medal.

In fact, Abdul knew exactly how Sen has been pulling off some of those outrageous retrieves throughout the week, with body-bending Matrix arches on defence and unreal cross-hits from seemingly unbalanced positions. This one on Friday evening though was different: Sen was moving diagonally from the right net corner to the left back pocket. And it was his decision to audaciously go down-the-line instead of the expected cross-court that caused the havoc in his torque – the shoulder across the torso swinging back before cocking the wrist in sudden snap, and the feet still headed forward. (Imagine hitting fast forward & pause in one go on video).

It is for the sake of such body-splitting elasticity on a badminton court – routine agility for top shuttlers – where the top half and the feet are doing their own equal-and-opposite things while in motion, that physios are kept busy 24×7.

“Improving agility is endless and always an ongoing process in badminton. When they go for tournaments, it’s not like you only play the match and the day is done. Every minute movement is worked on through the day,” Abdul says. “It’s the most high-impact sport I’ve worked in, and injuries happen because of the intensity. My job is to keep his body joints in good shape and correct posture,” adds the expert from Cuttack.

Abdul, the son of a supervisor of a top hotel chain, had very little exposure to sport when in school, just some casual table tennis. He’d pursue his Bachelor’s at Pune’s MA Rangoonwala College and Masters at Delhi’s Guru Gobind Singh College, after which he would gain experience from stints in Delhi tennis, basketball, football and even wrestling. Badminton, though, was a different feather-game.

“In Pune, I first interacted with badminton players who played inter-university and were my friends. It was an eye-opener, the demands of that sport,” Abdul recalls. He’s been at Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) since 2016, brought in by Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), but this last one year has been about accompanying Sen for top-tier events. “Other sports are 3-4 months. Badminton they play week after week, every month. It’s very demanding.”

Physio Abdul Wahid Shaikh with Lakshya Sen (Express photo)

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Sen has been vulnerable to injury owing to his game-style: he’s a frog prancing around the court with no care for limb or strife. It is Abdul and the strength and conditioning staff’s job to give him the freedom to go hopping after the shuttle. “My first priority with him was three areas – ankle mobility and strengthening, hips and shoulder,” Abdul recalls. When in Bengaluru – the weeks were divided among these three focus areas.

Assorted injuries that cropped up – first shoulder, lately the back, would demand quick changes in plans to patch up the mangled tissues. But it was in pre-hab that Abdul would start investing more time, to prevent injuries. “We worked on activating the loosening of joints and correct posture. As a right-hander, you are working your right leg more as a lead, and muscle imbalance will develop on one side because of unilateral movements. Plus, twists and turns. So, we work on posture to minimise that,” he says.

There are daily health questionnaires Sen fills, and his mood is accounted for, plus breathing exercises woven into warm-ups. “We check if he’s comfortable. Even recovery depends on what’s available where we are. Right now, it’s cold in Spain, so it’s hydrotherapy in the pool. There’ll be ice-baths in warmer climate or compression therapy when that’s required,” he says.

Even the running, skipping, cycling endurance loading is minutely chosen, so as not to overwork the knee and ankle.

Sen’s explosive game at the net, and all the quick jumping and adjustments to pick the shuttle from any position, mean even his landing on the court is being worked upon, with an eye on maintaining alignment. “Lakshya is super-agile on court and specific focus will remain on that aspect,” Abdul adds.

Sen’s long matches, like against Kenta Nishimoto, are the big groundhog days when three-gamers come bunched with minimal recovery. Badminton’s top echelons are wracked by injury due to a punishing schedule, and Sen’s biggest challenge will remain staying fit while playing in big arenas with slow shuttles. Instinctively attacking, he’s bought into the necessity of rallying. But that game-style’s always a wringer on the body.

“Long match days are hard work for the athlete. So, my responsibility is also to ensure nine hours’ sleep which we see as ‘recovery time’, while the nutritionist works on carbs loading at dinner (it’s been chicken and pasta at the buffet in Spain). But as a physio, it is my job to ensure that after all the tiring exertions, the athlete can maintain strength and get the soft tissue release thereafter,” he explains.

Abdul’s brief was clear: ensure Sen is always in with a chance in the third game. Against Zhao, the team of coach DK Sen and Abdul regrouped after high-fives and a two-minute celebratory acknowledgement of how far Sen had come. “Having beaten a Chinese player, we did a small jig. But then immediately got down to recovery. There are two more matches to go. Coaches like Vimal (Kumar) Sir have put trust in me with elite talent. I have to do my job well,” he says.

Kidambi Srikanth has had his own gargantuan battles with injuries and emerged on the bright side. “He’s a very good player, with great skills, fitness and strokes,” Abdul avers. Breath-taking badminton demands the invisible solid fitness, and Abdul Wahid reckons Sen’s team will keep the Sen cruise-ship steady, working like propellers.

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