In August last year, after falling one win short of a medal (again) at the World Championships, HS Prannoy was left feeling low. Is it written for him? Was it in his destiny? Mind you, it had been a good year already as he was back playing to a high level after a few seasons of trouble. The Thomas Cup triumph was historic, emphatic and one that he played a big role in. And yet, individual success (we’ll come to this word later) eluded him. He had won a bronze at the 2018 Asian Championships, another tough event to reach the podium at. But a title... that had last come in 2017 at the US Open, a Grand Prix Gold event as it was then.

One of the keys to Prannoy turning things around in the last couple of years has been the work he has done mentally. His game was always there. His body didn’t cooperate all the time, so he went about getting himself fit in any which way he could. But the real work, was mental.

On Sunday – 2,135 days later – Prannoy won a title again. He put his hands up as his crosscourt smash to Weng Hong Yang’s backhand side didn’t cross the net. The hands then covered his head as he turned away from the broadcast camera for a few milliseconds and looked down. In that instance, you could see how much it meant to him.

Haseena Sunil Kumar Prannoy was a title winner finally on the BWF World Tour. Malaysia Masters 2023 men’s singles champion. “Yeah yeah, there were tears. (smiles) I think it was long due for me, to be honest,” Prannoy told Scroll from Malaysia. “Felt a little emotional. The reaction was not one of aggression or anything. It was more of relief.”

Indeed. At 30 years old, Prannoy is no spring chicken... especially for a top level badminton player. And yet, two weeks back, he reached his career-best ranking of No 7 in the world. Then, followed up with the best week of results he has put together in his career.

It didn’t come easy.

Round 1: 64-minute, 3-game win vs Chou Tien Chen, the world No 5 and it was a fierce contest

Round 2: 70-minute, 3-game win vs Li Shi Feng, a rising star and the reigning All England champ 

Quarterfinal: 91-minute, 3-game win vs Kenta Nishimoto, one of the form players and a tough nut to crack

Final: 94-minute, 3-game win vs Weng Hong Yang, a Chinese left-hander who seems headed for big things

“The last six years were too much of a rollercoaster ride for me,” Prannoy told BWF after the final. “Thanks to Gopi sir (chief national coach Pullela Gopichand), he has kept telling me that I should believe that it will happen one day. It happened. Thanks to Guru (Gurusaidutt), he has been right behind me the entire week.”

And he was left with a sense of pride at making it all the way, navigating through a strong field. “The draw was really tough for me,” he added. “Last night was an unfortunate incident for Christian (Adinata, who retired due to a nasty injury) but I think apart from that, I had really tough matches and had to dig really deep. Four matches, all of them went to the wire. That shows how patient I was and fitness too, was decent I’d say. To beat these players in these conditions is not easy, the court was really slow the entire tournament. All matches were going long, just had to hang in there. I think I did that well.”

via BAI Media

It had also been a week where he struggled to sleep he added. There was the excitement of playing these matches in front of big crowds and going the distance. In the past, he has had a few tournaments where a big result or two was followed by a heartbreaking loss.

“It is always tough reaching so close to a medal and then losing out,” Prannoy told Scroll on Sunday. “I have come within one match many times, one point here and there... I have had a lot of experience in those situations. Then you doubt yourself big time. Are you not capable of winning these medals? Are you not destined to go above a point? Those doubts creep in, that’s tough. You know you are playing well, and still you wonder if this is good enough. But a lot of things changed this week. The trust on myself to just keep working an entire week... that was the one thing that was missing in the last few months. The trust to just keep going. This week, I got it right the entire tournament. That made the big difference.”

Acceptance has played a big part in his recent turnaround. At the 2022 India Open, when the results were only just starting to turn around, Prannoy had said, “I used to fight against things that happened to me, a lot of energy used to go behind that. I am much more relaxed now, this is how sport works, I just have to perform, nothing else will matter.”

After his role in leading India to the World Team Championships gold medal at Thomas Cup, he spoke to Scroll in detail about the mental work that had gone in to turn things around. He said, “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. 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.”

Working again extensively with Gopichand has also played a crucial role in his second wind. During pandemic, and in the time leading up to that too, things weren’t easy. Prannoy went to Gopichand a little over a year and a half back and the former All England champion has been involved a lot more on the coaching side in recent times.

Then came in Gurusaidutt, post his recent retirement, when he immediately started travelling as a coach. And having a travelling coach who he was comfortable with, and who is well aware of the tour, was critical. “Having someone who knows me as a person and a player, it was important,” Prannoy said. “All his inputs really hoped and you really need someone giving you the confidence that you can do this.”

All that hard work was put to test this week in Malaysia. And with the finish line in sight, Prannoy sent down a smash down the line. The scoreline was 19-18 in his favour. It seemed close. If it was in, it would be championship points for the Indian. If it was out, Weng has the serve at 19-19. The Chinese shuttler went for the review. And this was the result:

BWF TV screengrab

“When I hit the smash, I knew it was right. I knew it landed in,” Prannoy told Scroll. “But when they started to show the Hawkeye on the big screen, then my heart started to beat faster. I could see the trajectory was very, very close. I thought it would clip the line safely, but then that only landed in by a whisker. It gave me a little bit more confidence that it was my day.”

Prannoy is no stranger to these fine margins. What counts as success, you often wonder in sport. It is no mean achievement to be in the top 10 in the world for as long as Prannoy has been. It is no joke to be a Thomas Cup gold medallist. It is an incredible achievement to beat the best players in the world as often as he has. Two wins against Lin Dan, two wins against Lee Chong Wei, two wins against Viktor Axelsen... succeeding against the best in the business. But far too often in the past, he has come close to success in terms of significant individual glory. To be able to quantify success with a trophy, medal around the neck that belongs to you and only you.

And so, he satisfaction was sweet in Kuala Lumpur.

“I have always been knocking on the doors,” he said. “Finally, somebody opened it for me.”