“Oi! No, no no!”
“Oh, dear me. Oh dear. (Pause) Seems OK, my goodness. My heart stopped there.”
“That was the ‘Marin Slip’ as I call it. When you stride forward, and get the heel cap up into your Achilles. Oohh!”
“That didn’t look good at all. It would just be tragic after such an exciting semi-final so far, if Prannoy wasn’t able to continue...”
That was the conversation on air between commentators Steen Pedersen and Gillian Clark during the deciding fifth match of the 2022 Thomas Cup semi-final between India and Denmark. A place in the Thomas Cup final was at stake.
World No 23 HS Prannoy and world No 13 Rasmus Gemke were battling it out in Bangkok, knowing only one of them will be a hero for their side on the night. The tie was level at 2-2 and it came down to this, neither player could afford a slip-up... and at 4-10 in the opening game, came a scary slip for Prannoy that had pretty much everyone worried – the Indian fans, the commentators, even Gemke in the immediate aftermath.
Prannoy lay down on the court on his side, clutching his face, before eventually going over to his kit and receiving medical help. He winced in pain as copious amounts of the magic spray went on around an already strapped ankle. After a timeout, he limped around gingerly, took a sip of water, before slowly walking back onto the court.
At that instance, plenty of thoughts swirled around in his head – how much can he move, how painful is it going to be – but Prannoy took his time and decided the best thing he could do was stay in the moment. While the opening game was soon over, that little phase of play also gave him a tactical insight. Maybe slowing things down wasn’t a bad idea after all. And 54 minutes later, he was mobbed by his teammates after winning 13-21, 21-9, 21-12. History made for Indian badminton. Finalists of Thomas Cup.
“After the slip, I didn’t want the team to think that this match is gone,” Prannoy told Scroll.in.
“And I knew that I’m going to fight until the end. I was not really afraid about my injury, I was just concerned about the match. I knew the pain was there, and that I needed to give time for the painkiller also to kick in. I knew how big this can be, to be in the finals of such a big event.”
And things got better for him as the match went on. The painkillers kicked-in in the second half of second game. The third game, he even looked in complete control. As it turned out, in the moments after the injury, he found the tactical answer to win the match.
“That moment when I slipped was difficult because a lot of things were going inside my head. First of all, I was down 4-11 and things were not working out well. For the next five to 10 minutes I was a little bit confused. What kind of movements should I avoid? Is it going to be really bad? I realised soon, because I didn’t twist my ankle, it might not get too bad. I kind of slipped and that jerk happened behind the ankle and achilles, I could feel that,” Prannoy said.
“Certain lunges were really tough and obviously jumping behind was hard too. Then I think that kind of gave me an insight on what I can do differently. I was playing a really fast game at the start of the match and then post the slip I thought I will try playing slow because of the movements. Thought it might help me today because I could feel that he was not really comfortable when I was playing slow. The injury kind of gave me that opportunity that day.
“And then I pushed pace when he was not really ready for it, especially like at the start of the third game when I was playing from the bad side. I told Siyadath sir (on the coaching chair) and we decided he might not be ready for it, and that gave me a little early lead from the bad side. So those kinds of strategies actually work really nice.”
In some ways, that hour or so in Bangkok was a microcosm of Prannoy’s career. It started with a lot of promise, things then appeared bleak for a while as injury reared its head, but he cleared his mind, knew he had to fight back, and turned things around to produce one of the most significant results for Indian badminton.
Being in the moment
In September last year, Prannoy posted a motivational tweet: “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” A month earlier on August 14, when tournament time was hard to come by, he reacted to yet another event getting postponed, by wondering, sarcastically of course, if he would be better off becoming a tennis player. A couple of weeks before that, while speaking to Scroll.in about PV Sindhu’s historic bronze medal at Tokyo Olympics, he said it reminded him to keep going despite a dull phase... clearly, those were not easy times.
But HS Prannoy kept at it. First, he got better physically, and that included doing everything he could in his power to find solutions to a rib issue that was bothering him. All the while, he also focussed on getting strong mentally, reminding himself he is not done yet.
“The one thing which I keep telling the youngsters and the juniors is that everything is not going to be the same, your entire career. Things will be like a rollercoaster ride... you will have a lot of downs, and only a few highs. And there are only a very few players who consistently had only ups in their careers, because they are extraordinary,” Prannoy said, reflecting on his learnings from that phase last year.
“There were a lot of downs for me... injuries and a lot of other breaks as such. But when I look back, there are so many things that just happened which I never dreamt off. And I think we have to be really grateful to things that have happened and we have to always cherish those moments because only few of them are able to experience that.”
Out of that tough phase in 2021, things started to get better. He put in the hard yards in training. Instead of spending energy on fighting things that were not under his control, a major turnaround for Prannoy happened last year when he started to put an emphasis on the daily routines, to be a little bit more focussed... being in the moment.
He got a last minute entry to the World Championships in Huelva, where he made an impressive run to the quarterfinals, only losing to the eventual champion Loh Kean Yew but not before giving him a good test. At the end of the tournament he tweeted: “2021 is done and dusted but I can already feel that 2022 is going to be much better.”
And here we are, in May 2022, and Prannoy is an integral part of the World Champion men’s badminton team.
“Sometimes sport is really, really cruel. The amount of time and energy you spend on this, you always want results, but sometimes it doesn’t come. I was trying to accept the environment or the factors as it is and then try to improve what you are not actually good at. And if you’re doing that, then I think you’re doing justice to yourself,” Prannoy said.
“As a sportsperson, what you can do is put in all your effort and once you finish, once you hang up your boots, then you should not have a regret like ‘I should have done this or that at some point in time.’
“So that is one very big thing which I made my mind up about. Once I leave the sport, I should be fully satisfied with what I did. That’s why I’ve tried all sorts of things... physios, trainers, mental conditioners, dietitians, breathing techniques. I keep trying all those things because you don’t know what is best for you. Sometimes one thing might be the thing which might work for you. But unless and until you give that opportunity to someone, you don’t know.”
Not done yet
A couple of times during the conversation, Prannoy made a reference to “extraordinary” players of present and past, and how things come easier to them than the rest. Prannoy evidently feels he is part of the “rest”, and to succeed with limitations means to put your heart and soul into it.
“I think it’s important for each and every athlete to seek that help,” Prannoy said. “Because everybody’s going through different problems in their life, it might be personal, it might be professional. So it is very important that you communicate with someone, because keeping it with yourself, you’re not going to get answers for it. A third person can evaluate it much better. And they can give you suggestions to work on. So that is why I feel it is very important that you try speaking to someone.”
Mind you, it has not always been easy for him. It’s not often you see prominent athletes post a message on social media saying: “sorry, once again I choked when it mattered.”
That is what Prannoy did in 2018, in what was actually one of the best phases in his career, when he faltered at the Commonwealth Games, letting a bronze medal slip from his grasp.
“There were a lot of times I felt like saying ‘this is done’. I have told my parents, I remember in 2015-2016 also, I told them so many times... I think I’m done with the sport,” Prannoy recalled.
“But those are the times I was not mature enough. And I was thinking only about short term goals and not the long term goals. And that’s where I started to evolve as a player, I would say. I think a lot of credit also goes to Gopi sir (Pullela Gopichand) in this. Where there have been tough patches, he always used to say that: ‘this is a journey’.
“Commonwealth Games 2018, that was one of the toughest days for me, I would say. When I lost two matches in one day and finished without a medal. I still remember, I was just lost that day. And that’s when Bhaiya called me and I think we spoke for nearly three hours at the food court. He said: ‘you have put the effort which you actually have to. Just that, sometimes the win doesn’t come when you wish for but it comes when you’re not really expecting. Because you are desperately hoping that this medal comes to you, but it didn’t come. There are a lot of reasons, you ran into Lee Chong Wei in the semi-finals. People don’t sometimes realise how extraordinary he is when he was old.’
“That conversation helped me.”
Sure enough, shortly after the CWG heartbreak, Prannoy went to China and won the bronze medal in the Badminton Asia Championships, navigating a tough draw and defeating the then World No 2 Son Wan Ho to reach the semi-finals. In terms of the quality of the field, it was a tougher event than CWG, even if it might not have the same public attention. And it marked his rise to world No 8 in the rankings as well, so far his highest.
“When you think about all those experiences, you realise that yes, certain things comes to you, certain things don’t. So you have to appreciate what has happened. And yes, post-Covid, it was a tough period. But I was not ready to give up as such. And I was not letting myself say ‘that this is done’, because I felt that I will be able to play well, I still have a good three, four years left in me to play at the top.”
And all those efforts paid off for Prannoy, first in the crucial, but eventually comfortable, win against Malaysia that confirmed India’s medal, and then most importantly in the semi-final against Gemke.
“I have been working a lot on this recently as a team... we have been trying to do a lot to be present mentally in a moment and to have that focus all throughout the game. It’s something I’ve been totally lacking over the years, which I feel I’ve slightly improved in the last few months. Just probably a 5% improvement in that area.
“Even (in the semifinal against Gemke) that night, I was trying to tell myself that the situations are going to be a little tough, but the important thing for me is to think what I can do next point, rather than thinking of the injury, or thinking what the team is going through at that point. I knew once I fell they could be very anxious and I could see some tense faces. I told myself these are the things which will come in between but the most important thing is to focus on the next shuttle which is coming at me, to plan a rally. Get busy doing all that, rather than to be busy trying to know what’s happening outside or with my body.”
And while Prannoy succeeded in the individual battles in Bangkok, winning all five of the matches he was called up on, the triumph itself was built on the strength of the team. It is something he has stressed in every interaction during and since that memorable week. Even when he was asked about his form during the tournament, he made it a point to mention about how good Srikanth Kidambi and Lakshya Sen have been in recent times.
“The team was extraordinary as such, and to say every member of the team was nice would be an understatement. The wavelength was the same from the start. Just giving an example... we thought we will have the same dress code for travelling. And if one guy had said ‘what is this stupidity’ and then whole energy would have gone off. But then all 10 said ‘yes, we are going to do this’.
“Everybody was so good to each other. I think the entire staff was so supportive, they were doing everything for us so that we can play well. The two things which Srikanth and I said in the team meeting was... we win or lose, doesn’t matter. To show that passion, that’s what we are here for. And we were lacking that a bit against Chinese Taipei (group stage). But from the moment Srikanth won his match there and we saw his reaction, things completely changed.
“Against Indonesia, 3-0, I think nobody expected. Even I didn’t. But it just purely happened because of this transformation of body language and the passion. Once that quarterfinals match finished, everybody was like ‘nahi chodna hai, last match tak jaayega, toh jaane do. Jeetna hi hai’. This was the team talk every single time.”
For the 29-year-old from Kerala who has seen a fair share of ups and downs in his career, the 2022 Thomas Cup Finals proved to be a magnificent high as he played a vital role in India assuring their first ever podium finish in this tournament’s history... which eventually turned into a gold medal.
For him, this journey was as much about his mental transformation, as it has been about finding physical fitness. Without being afraid of failure, Prannoy fought hard and with a fantastic team around him, reached the top of the world.
Once he ends his career, he can look back at the end of 2021 and the first half of 2022, with no regrets and plenty of pride.
Read more from Scroll.in’s Thomas Cup coverage here: