June 18, 2015. That was when HS Prannoy reached his then-career best world ranking of 12 among the men’s singles players. He held that spot till September that year, before gradually beginning to slide down. By February 2016, he was out of the top 20. By September that year, he had fallen out of top 30. And until June this year, was hovering in the 20s-30s – which, for most players, is not a bad region to hover over.
Fast forward to June 2017. Something clicked for the 25-year-old from Kerala. In two consecutive days, he defeated – demolished, in fact – the legendary Lee Chong Wei and outlasted the reigning Olympic champion Chen Long at the Indonesia Open to enter his first ever Superseries semi-final. His third career grand prix gold title followed soon at the US Open in August and with a semi-final appearance at the French Superseries in October, he has now bettered his previous best world ranking to reach number 11.
For Prannoy, it’s been a long journey back since, one fraught with injuries and self-doubts but a journey that’s finally beginning to bear fruit. The Field caught up with him as he looks back at his year and looks forward to continuing his good form.
Looking at 2017, it has already been one heck of a year for men’s singles badminton in India. Srikanth’s run of form and Sai Praneeth’s Superseries title, five men in the top 20 at one point. And now you have reached your career-best ranking. What do you, personally, make of this? Are you satisfied with your achievements this year?
Well, I would say I haven’t actually achieved a great deal as I haven’t won a Superseries title. (laughs) There’s a lot left for me to win. Of course, I am happy with my year and to be playing at this level. For badminton to grow as a sport, we knew all of us had to step up collectively in the big tournaments, and we have done that this year.
For me, the coming first half of the year is even more crucial because I have always missed out on the big events. That’s been my focus in the last 3-4 months – I decided I won’t miss events like All England, World Championships, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. If there are limited spots for India, I want to be in one of them. For the rest of this year, I will try and break into the top eight so that I start getting better draws at events. A couple of more big wins and deep runs in Superseries, and I know I can break into the top 8.
It won’t be an understatement to say you are in the form of your life now. How have you been feeling about the results in the past few weeks?
Pretty happy with the way things have been going for me. In the last two weeks in the Superseries circuit, I had just one bad match against Son Wan Ho in Denmark. And I was feeling much better in Paris, my confidence level was much higher. The first two rounds, I thought I played extremely well against tough opponents, which has given me a lot of confidence. I am just happy with the way I have been improving on my consistency. It feels good to go past the initial hurdles in tournament which I always had issues with in the past.
What do you put that down to?
I think it’s just a question of time, I think. At times, when I didn’t get past initial rounds in tournaments, I got frustrated. You begin to feel like you can’t find answers to your own problems. But, then have gone right for me since June this year. In the nine tournaments I have played since June, I have just lost two first round matches and have consistently reached quarter-finals. Things clicked into place once I overcame the first hurdle more often.
Is that more of a mental change you had to make then?
Yes, I made some changes to my mindset, in how I approach matches, especially in Denmark and France. If you approach a match, overthinking about it, then you lose focus. I have been doing some homework, telling myself to avoid pre-thinking about a match. The one thing I repeatedly told myself was to play longer.
‘Play longer.’ You mean longer rallies?
No, just stay on court for longer time. Play longer matches. My mindset earlier used to be to finish off matches quickly, to win as fast as possible. I realised that wasn’t helping me. Mentally, now I told myself that I should be ready to spend as much time on the court as it is needed. Even if it is 19-19 in a decider, I was wanted to stay patient and not look at the finish line. That was the one big change I brought in my game.
That’s the mental aspect. How about your physical fitness? Your talent was never in question, but your frequent injuries was affecting your progress. Do you think you are at your physical best now?
Wouldn’t say the best, but very happy with the way I have been able to train for longer periods. There used to be a time when I had to take offs regularly to avoid injuries. But now I am able to continously train for two, three even four weeks without taking any extra breaks, and train at a high level with high quality players. That automatically has given me confidence that if my body can take this load in training, it will reflect on court.
I haven’t changed anything drastically in my routine, but in the last six months I have been regularly monitoring my body. I know that for my body to help me play till I am 30-31, will be tough. So I know these regular treatments and check-ups are essential. And I realise that I have been feeling much better during tournaments as a result.
You told us earlier, after winning the US Open, that you have made peace with the fact that you are injury-prone. That did a play a role in your recent run of good form.
You need to accept facts. That certain things won’t change. If I am going to resist that in my head and focus on the frequency injuries, it builds up negativity. If the injuries don’t, the negativity will bring you down. In six years of playing at this level, that’s one thing I have learned and accepted. I am mentally much more relaxed, knowing that if I do get injured again I will face it and I know what it takes to come back, start playing at a high level again.
Qualification for the year-end tournament at Dubai a priority for you?
It’s a big tournament and everyone loves playing there. It’s not an easy task for me now, and I need to be reach quarter-finals and beyond in Hong Kong and China Open. I am not trying to focus on Dubai particularly, but the way I have been playing I can beat anyone on my day. I’ll continue to train hard, and with a bit of luck, maybe I will play in Dubai.
Srikanth has had an unprecedented year in the international cricuit for an Indian player. You two train together, know each other well. On a personal note, what effect has his form had on you?
Everyone asks what has sparked this great run of form for all of us. I would say Sai Praneeth and Sameer Verma’s form early this year started it. Everyone started training harder, it pushed all of us to perform better and turn heads. Srikanth has had an exceptional year and I would even say he is the best player in the world right now. It has given us all the confidence and we started thinking if Srikanth can do it, why can’t we? And you can see that in our training sessions – every one is going hard at each other. That sort of an attitude was missing, say, three or four years back where if we were tired we would take the odd session lightly. But now, we can’t take a single session lightly, because the rest are waiting to catch up with you. Srikanth’s form has pushed others to do well, and the atmosphere in the team is really positive. I just hope it continues longer.
You mentioned you could beat anyone on your day. Talk a little about that. Is that something you always believed in?
This was a quality I always had. I have heard people say that I don’t believe in myself but I knew I had it in me. Even against Srikanth in French Superseries, the most in-form player, I almost had a win. I know that, on a particular day, if I am mentally and physically ready, it’s very tough to beat me.
You have now reached your career best ranking of 11. Is that something you had hoped for at the beginning of 2017? And what next?
I would say my job is still unfinished. I was no. 12 in 2015 and with the injuries since, I have finally managed to come back to that spot again now at the end of 2017. But the dream is to be in the top 5-6, and for that I need to win big events like Srikanth has shown this year. Really happy with the ranking now, but there are plenty of things left to do and this is my time. I am 25 right now – the right age to push myself. I hope to break in to the top 5 by next year. I have left many big events in the past thinking I was maybe not good enough for them, but now I know am.