Viktor Axelsen stretched to his right to return a half-smash from HS Prannoy. On any other day, the world No 1 from Denmark would have made the shot without much effort. But at the Royal Arena in Copenhagen last week, it was an evening where a lot would not go his way.
The shuttlecock travelled high in the air towards the baseline on the left side of the court as Prannoy settled under it. And then the Indian decided to let it go.
The shuttle dropped out of bounds, and there was stark silence in the stadium. In front of his home crowd, Axelsen, the defending champion, had been knocked out of the 2023 BWF World Championships in the quarter-final stage.
Prannoy turned to his coaches – Pullela Gopichand and Gurusai Dutt – and simply pointed to his temple. At the age of 31, Prannoy had secured a first-ever World Championships medal.
Even as Gopichand and Dutt punched the air in delight, there was no real change in Prannoy’s facial expression.
“Celebration was nothing, there was no meaning behind the celebration,” Prannoy told Scroll about the 13-21, 21-15, 21-16 win over Axelsen. “It was something which came up in my mind and I just showed that.”
Then he added with a laugh: “But I felt there was some celebration needed.”
Prannoy had beaten a modern-day great in his own backyard to become only the fifth Indian to win a men’s singles medal at the World Championships. He would take home the bronze after losing the semi-final to Kunlavut Vitidsarn, the eventual champion from Thailand.
But in that quarter-final against Axelsen, much like his post-win celebration, he was rather calm during the 68-minute long contest. That trademark Prannoy roar, which fans have been accustomed to, was absent for a major portion of that evening.
It was all a part of a well thought out strategy, Prannoy asserted.
“Sometimes, you have to be animated,” he said. “Sometimes, you get that extra energy from yourself when the situation demands. Against Loh Kean Yew [round of 16], it was important to celebrate each point [in the latter stages] because it was getting to the nerves. It was getting really tense out there. We had to let that go in some way or the other,” Prannoy said.
“But I think against Viktor, it was a little bit more important to be focused and finish things off.”
Over the past year and a half, Prannoy has been one of the most consistent Indian shuttlers alongside the men’s doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty.
From being on the brink of leaving the sport for good, he has now achieved a career-best world rank of 6.
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If the pre-coronavirus era saw Prannoy battle injuries and health issues, the period after the Covid-19 pandemic saw him struggle for funds and sponsorships.
So much so that he was on the verge of withdrawing from the 2021 World Championships in Spain due to a lack of funds. It was only after the intervention of a sponsor that he managed to make the trip.
That tournament marked the beginning of a turnaround which has seen him go from being a giant killer to a certified giant.
Ranked 32 in the world at the time, Prannoy made an inspiring run to the quarter-final. In May 2022, he would go on to play a major role in India’s historic Thomas Cup triumph.
He would also reach the quarter-finals of the World Championships in the following edition at Tokyo before finally securing a podium in Copenhagen last week.
“You always find that extra level of happiness when things are going well,” he added. “But I think sports is like that. Sports is cruel. It’s not same every day, it keeps changing. Times keeps changing. People forget you sometimes.
“But it’s important that you keep working hard and make sure that you are doing justice to your own skills.”
Now 31, Prannoy is enjoying a late surge in his career. But ask him if he wished the upward swing came earlier, he asserted he is exactly where he is supposed to be.
“I never look at things in that line [that I am achieving late],” he said. “I don’t think that something should have come early. I would always say that it came now and that is a big blessing as such. A lot of those who start playing badminton are not able to get it. I have to be always grateful of the fact that something has happened and I don’t mind whenever it happens. The most important thing is that it should happen.”
Not fully fit
What makes Prannoy’s achievement even more astonishing is the fact that he was not completely fit heading into the World Championships.
He had just five days to recover after finishing the Australian Open Super 500 in August as finalist. But he had already been carrying a shoulder strain since the Korea Open Super 500 in July.
“We were not sure how to deal with it during the Worlds, but we just managed with whatever we could,” he said.
The injury and fatigue all combined together to take a toll on Prannoy in the semi-final as he looked to become only the second Indian man after Srikanth to reach the World Championships title clash. He eventually lost 21-18, 13-21, 14-21 to Vitidsarn.
“The last three to four months have been a little tiring for me personally because I have been able to play a little deeper in tournaments,” Prannoy said.
“The body is not ready for it every single week and for every single game. My legs were not moving [in the semi-final] as easily as they were the entire week. So yes, definitely tiredness kind of crept in.”
No time to celebrate
Prannoy has had a long season already with deep runs at multiple events. He had won the Malaysia Masters Super 500 in May before reaching the final in Australia. He had also reached the semi-final at the Indonesia Open Super 1000 and is now a World Championships semi-finalist.
But there is not much time to rest yet.
With the race to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics heating up, Prannoy knows that he has to keep his body in good condition for the rest of the season.
“The plan is just to take week by week and month by month,” he said. “Not hurrying up anything and just make sure that the body is in a good shape to play. If the body is not in a good shape to play, better to back off and take that rest.”
The priority at the moment is the off-court planning that he has to do. The Race to Paris is already on, and the Asian Games that start on September 23, are on his mind as well.
But Prannoy is not too worried at the moment. He has started to find his rhythm and pick up important wins. As the momentum builds, he does not have much time to celebrate.
But for the freshly-minted World Championships medallist, the fun has just begun.