“My grandfather used to maintain a scrapbook — with all the clippings of the tournaments that I used to win. Then, at a certain point, he stopped, I think,” said Sai Praneeth. “I guess I was winning too much.”
Some might look at that as a boast. But Praneeth wasn’t kidding. Winning, in the early years, came easy to him. He started with the national U-10 title, then followed it up with the U-13, U-16, U-19, a bronze in the world juniors and even the senior national title. All this, by the age of 21. In his mind, he was destined for great things.
“It was never easy but I was a dominating player in the juniors,” said Praneeth.
But till the Singapore Super Series title came about last week, his senior international career was a mystery. On his day, he could beat the best but those days were far and few in between many ordinary ones. Still, to those watching him, it wasn’t perplexing. Rather, his shortcomings were clear. He just wasn’t working hard enough on the physical side of the game.
At the junior level, Praneeth’s skills level were good enough to carry him through to win after win. His natural talent allowed him to hit shots with little apparent effort. The same shots (as good as they still are), however, seemed to hold him back at the senior level. He now found that one shot wasn’t good enough to get him the point. It took multiple attempts and that’s where the physicality of senior badminton would get to him.
“Initially, when I came to the seniors, I beat the top players too. Then, there were injuries that held me back. Obviously, it was frustrating,” said Praneeth. “I realised what I wanted to do but...”
Could have, should have
But there was always something that seemed to be holding him back. H S Prannoy, one of India’s top badminton players, was a rival in the junior days and he recalls those days with a fair degree of awe.
“He’s a different type of guy. Perhaps the most naturally talented player in the country,” said Prannoy. “He could have done this long before.”
Now, there are certain words that get associated with certain athletes over their careers. With Sai, that word is ‘talent’. Still, where does it comes from and what makes him worthy of it?
“He has what we like to call good hands,” elaborated Prannoy. “He just comes in after a two month break and plays shots that I practice really hard for everyday and still find tough to execute. Just like that. The half-smash, the drop, the dribble — he plays them all and he makes it look easy. I know because while I have power, these things do not come easy to me.”
“On TV, you may not notice but his grip is different. It allows him to him hit backhand drives and half-smashes. These are very difficult shots,” Prannoy added. “So many times when Sai comes in to practice, we just tell him to go... ‘Why do you want to do this? You know you can already do it.’ He laughs and says that he will only practice for five minutes. But badminton at the senior level is 60 percent fitness and 40 percent skill. Perhaps, it took Sai a little longer to accept that but then maybe it was destiny.”
The skills will give you a definite advantage no matter what. But if you can’t last the distance or put those skills into play with consistency ,then what good are those skills?
Pranav Chopra, a mixed doubles player at the senior level, forged an unbeatable doubles team with Sai at the junior level.
“Between 2008 and 2010, we won almost everything. We even won a few national ranking tournaments in 2009. We practised doubles together in the first year but after that he would just play as he concentrated on seniors,” said Pranav. “We had a good understanding and the coaches just asked us to continue playing.”
The one thing did stand out even then for Pranav was the ‘talent’ and how unafraid he was to take risks.
“If the game was tied at 17-17, he would always be the one to take the risk. There would be no time spent thinking. He always wanted to go all out. He always felt that he would rather take the risk and lose rather than not try anything at all,” said Pranav.
“Still the seniors are a different ball game. He has the game to beat anyone — he even took Lin Dan to three games in Malaysia,” Pranav added.
And then it happened
The turning point for Praneeth might have been the introduction of Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo. Best known for coaching Taufik Hidayat, he joined as the singles coach to ease the workload on P Gopichand.
Handoyo made an important change to the training regimen. Gopichand’s training method relied on short sessions. The Indonesian, however, takes the long route. The day begins with an intense four-hour training session that leaves everyone winded. From 7:30 to 11:30, the Indian players are put through their paces. There is another session in the evening. It is so strenuous that it leaves many players with not enough time to work on their skills but with Praneeth’s ‘talent’, it seems to suit him just fine.
“He has changed the entire programme,” said Praneeth. “When I managed to play through three consecutive one-hour matches at Singapore in the early rounds (Emil Holst in R32, Qiao Bin in R16 and Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk in QF) and come out victorious, my confidence increased. The two months training before Singapore really helped and I know if I can train right, I can compete.”
By the time Praneeth made it to the final, he was already feeling pretty good.
“Usually, you run into someone like Lee Chong Wei or Chen Long in the final. But here, I was at least facing someone I have played thousands of times,” said Praneeth. “But I also knew that my earlier record against Srikanth didn’t matter. I was his senior and I beat him initially, but now I don’t even beat him every time we practice.”
That confidence quickly evaporated once the match started. Srikanth took the first game 21-17 and then jumped to a healthy lead in the second game too.
“He usually starts slowly but suddenly he was very fast to begin with. It took me by surprise and I just decided to try and find my rhythm.”
When Praneeth did eventually find his rhythm, Srikanth just couldn’t keep up and the 24-year-old from Moulali near Hyderabad became only the second Indian male to win a Super Series title. Praneeth had never made it beyond the quarterfinals of a Super Series event or even won a Grand Prix Gold tournament, which is a rung below before this, and to many, this maybe the moment when Praneeth finds his true self at the senior level too.
It has taken a while but now that he has metaphorically tasted blood, will he find a way to consistently up the ante? Praneeth was the first to admit that perhaps the luck of the draw went his way, but he did find a way to make the most of his luck. Not everyone does that. Indeed, not everyone can.
“The most special moment of my career is a bit of a blur. It changes. When I won the U-10 that was the most special, when I won the U-13 that was it, when I won the National title that was it, when I won the Super Series title that was it. It moves on... all the time... always getting bigger and better.”
And given that Praneeth just seems to be starting up, one can’t help but like the sound of that.