Pramod Bhagat had lost the last eight of his nine encounters against England’s Daniel Bethell. As per his own admission, Bhagat has been found out by his biggest rival.

So when the 35-year-old Indian went up against Bethell in the men’s singles SL3 final at the 2024 Para Badminton World Championships last month in Pattaya, Thailand, the odds were firmly stacked in favour of the English player.

Bhagat did not enjoy the best of starts either, as he surrendered the opening game 14-21 despite taking an early lead. But he would not let the match get away from him. He fought back to win the next two games 21-15, 21-15 to clinch the title after a long, 100-minute final.

“I played a fast-paced game in the first set and got the early advantage, but Daniel found the counter,” said Bhagat in conversation with Scroll.

“I changed the strategy in the second game and focused on playing slow, creating opportunities and I easily got the match in my favour.”

This is exactly what Bhagat had worked towards in the month prior to the World Championships under the tutelage of Nikhil Kanetkar in Pune.

Bhagat knew he will not have it easy against Bethell and that mindset formed the core part of his preparation.

“For the worlds, what was important was we get Pramod back in shape,” said Kanetkar to this publication.

“It was very, very important for him to be mentally and physically fit to be able to push himself in that last match,” the 2004 Indian Olympian-turned-coach added.

The fact that Kanetkar plays left-handed, like Bethell, also meant that Bhagat could prepare well to face his rival.

“We did some practice, some drills, to that particular play style, and because my shots are little sharp and slightly more accurate than his usual training partners…that helped him during that crucial match,” Kanetkar added.

Bhagat has been a regular at the Nikhil Kanetkar Badminton Academy, stopping by whenever his schedule allows him to do so. But the reigning Paralympic champion, who had four Para World Championships singles gold medals to his name before claiming the fifth in Thailand, still wanted to find more information about his own game.

Once they did that, the duo worked together to iron out the flaws.

“We worked on my accuracy and towards increasing my fitness – the results of which we saw later.”

Bhagat is now a five-time world champion, equalling the record held by arguably the sport’s greatest player, Lin Dan of China. That’s an achievement the Indian veteran is most pleased with.

“Ever since I won my fourth title in 2022, I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to equal his record,” Bhagat said. “It feels surreal.”

The Indian is now targetting another of Lin’s tallies. The Chinese shuttler has two Olympic gold medals to his name, won in Beijing 2008 and London 2012. Bhagat won his first at the Tokyo Paralympics, and is now targetting a second in Paris, which starts in August.

Kanetkar, too, echoes the same sentiment.

“Heading into the Paralympics, Pramod has to figure out a lot of things but I believe he has the chance to win yet another goal,” said the coach.

Bhagat, however, knows it won’t be as easy as it sounds. He will once again have to overcome the challenge posed by Bethell if he has to repeat his heroics from the Tokyo Games, where he had defeated the Englishman for the gold.

“Bethell has worked a lot on himself after Tokyo, while I got a bit lost and was not focused,” said Bhagat. “He has developed his game very well to reach this level and now we are equally matched.”

Bhagat has his target firmly in mind and with the win in Pattaya, he knows he can compete against a rival who had been a thorn in his side recently.

With a few months to go for the Paralympics, Bhafgat is working to get just that little bit better to get him over the line once again.