This time, the doctors were convinced he wouldn’t be able to play. After all, he had suffered a patellar tendon rupture during a surgery in November 2011 to excise osteophytes (rogue pieces of flesh and bone that caused ‘locking’ of the knee joint) from his replaced left knee. Corrective surgery in January 2012 had failed to solve the problem since the tendon had got heavily calcified. They drilled a hole in his kneecap to loop and anchor the ruptured tendon, reconstructed from a hamstring in the other leg, and placed his leg in a plaster cast for the next four months. His chances of even playing badminton again, they said, were remote, let alone competitive badminton.
But Shirish Nadkarni has made a habit of defying expert opinion. After six weeks of physiotherapy, he and long-time partner Hubert Miranda won the State Veterans’ Doubles Championships. Just over a month later, they won the National 60+ doubles title – 13 months after his layoff. The doctors called him a medical miracle.
This was just the latest episode in Nadkarni’s astonishing defiance of his own body. Over the years, his body has required not one or two, but 17 major surgeries, including those of the heart, eye, lower back, ankle (ruptured Achilles’ tendon), elbow and both knees. Any of these should have knocked off a person’s sporting ambitions, but Nadkarni is made of different steel. “I have tremendous passion for badminton,” he says. “Not once have I felt it’s time to quit.”
Nadkarni had played for Maharashtra in his younger days but could not make it to the Indian team. His passion for badminton saw him travel to tournaments as a writer. A contemporary of Prakash Padukone, Nadkarni covered many of his great victories, including the All England in 1980 and the World Cup in 1981. His injury troubles began with a knee injury when he was 21; his first surgery was at 32. Since then, he has had several serious medical conditions, but his recovery to peak badminton-playing ability has confounded doctors. His medical record includes three arthroscopies in his right knee, six surgeries in his left knee, including a knee replacement surgery in April 2003, two surgeries in his right elbow, three laser surgeries in his left eye and surgeries for two slipped discs and a heart attack — the latter requiring an angioplasty and placement of a medicated stent. These battles, though, haven’t stopped him from winning ten national veteran’s titles, a World Championship gold (2005), three golds and two silvers at the 2002 World Masters, and a gold and two silvers from the 2005 World Masters.. The heart attack, incidentally, happened in December 2005, just four months after he and regular partner Hubert Miranda won the world 55+ doubles crown in Edmonton, Canada. “This time, my surgeon, Rajesh Chauhan, had his professor, the venerable Dr Vengsarkar, assisting him in surgery,” Nadkarni says. “Dr Vengsakar said he’d be surprised if I played after surgery. Both were overjoyed when I won the Nationals.”
Interestingly, many of the surgeries – those on the knee, back and elbow – were caused by badminton, but he never thought of giving up the game. “I had to modify my game,” he says. “I create openings for my partner. My job is at the net, to sense the shuttle and push it into the opponents’ body, and use deception. Hubert is good at finishing off the rallies and covering the back court.”
What does it take to beat injury? “Seventy-five percent (of recovery) is in the mind. When I had the eye injury, I felt I might not play again, but I never lost faith. I keep looking forward to getting back. You have to overcome the fear barrier. If it (the operated part in the body) breaks, so be it. I’ll get it repaired again. I’m used to pain.”
Nadkarni is the author of ‘Courting Successs — Icons of Indian Badminton’ — that profiles 24 of India’s badminton greats.
The National title will see him represent India for the World Veterans’ Championships. “We will leave no stone unturned in trying to win the world title,” says Nadkarni. It would be unwise to bet against him.