Watching HS Prannoy in action on Saturday against defending Olympic champion Chen Long would have been delightful and frustrating in equal measure for an Indian badminton fan. The second-highest ranked Indian men’s singles player was matching the highest-ranked player from China shot-for-shot, at his own turf.
The stage was the semi-final of the Asian Badminton Championships, and at stake was a place in the final to decide who’s the best in the continent this year, and Prannoy made sure Chen Long won’t have his rightful place in the final coming easy.
And yet, it was the errors from the Indian’s racket that ultimately proved decisive. The Chinese star just had to defend well and stay in the rallies long enough to win the semi-final in straight games.
For Prannoy, eventually, it was a hard-earned bronze medal at the prestigious event - India’s first medal in the men’s singles category since 2007.
“It’s a mixed feeling today about the semi-final. I played well in patches, I stayed in the game long enough,” Prannoy said. “I was playing some great shots when I was not trying to score a point, but every time I tried to finish a rally, I hit it long or into the net. It was that kind of a day. I couldn’t execute the game plan as well as I could, but overall, happy with how the tournament panned out,” he added.
This was an interesting tournament for Prannoy. He was on court for long periods of time, with all his matches leading up to the semi-final going the distance. He needed three games to win against Kantaphon Wangcharoen of Thailand, a player ranked 26 places below him, in the opening round. He had to slug it out against the highly talented Wang Tzu Wei when he was not playing his best badminton. He was pushed to the limits by world No 2 Son Wan Ho in the quarter-final, where he was two points away from losing the match, before turning it around in style.
“I was happy about my patience levels in all the matches. Especially when things were not going to plan in the first round, the one thing I was happy about was being more patient than usual. It was crucial for me to win that match and the quarter-final against Son Wan Ho, because in the past, I always come close to a win and then throw it away. In this tournament I converted two of those situations into wins,” Prannoy said, speaking of the positives.
“I was not trying to score in every rally, just focussed on staying in the point. Probably the only match I tried to do score too many points, was in the semi-final against Chen Long, and that didn’t really help,” he added.
The patience aspect is something Prannoy has been consciously working on in the past year or so where he has had quite a few great results and a significant jump in ranking. But he admits there are times even now where on some days it doesn’t click for him on court. He had one such day at the Commonwealth Games when he lost the semi-final to Lee Chong Wei and the bronze medal playoff against Rajiv Ouseph in a matter of few hours. He took to Twitter to admit to buckling under pressure when it mattered. He calls it a learning process and, in hindsight, is happy that the days of inconsistency are fewer now than they were before.
“Gopi sir had a really long talk with me after the CWG defeats, which really helped. He was the one persons who told me it doesn’t matter when you have one bad day, there are so many tournaments to look forward to. That eased out a lot of pressure on me,” Prannoy said, regarding those tough defeats at Gold Coast. “It was then really important for me to come back and train immediately for one week. It’s important to focus on the performances, because this is a hectic year.”
In that sense, it’s been a tricky start to 2018 for Prannoy. He started off in great form in the Premier Badminton League, had an injury soon after, went to All England with barely any training and exceeded expectations there, before that disappointing outing at Gold Coast. And a few days later, he has won a bronze in a tough field at BAC in Wuhan. To think it’s only April.
“I think the ups and downs are a little exaggerated in our sport because of the amount of big tournaments we play every year,” said Prannoy. “For me, my performances have been good for the most part but the bad days are the ones that teach me a lot. It’s important to use them as a learning experience and that is why I think I did well in Wuhan.”
How does he deal with those tough situations?
“See, I am one player who thinks a lot about my game. I understand very well what I need to do to win games, what works for me and what is not happening for my side. I keep trying to incorporate new aspects from other players as well. Gopi sir helps me in that regard and ultimately it’s in these small margins that results are decided,” he said.
For a player who is known for talking openly about his game, his technique and regarded as a good thinker, does he fall prey to overthinking some times? Does he tend to put too much pressure on himself?
“No, I wouldn’t say that. In most of the matches, I know exactly what to expect from the other side of the net. I understand quickly what my opponents are trying to do. I always feel I am one step ahead of my opponent. But on particular bad days, it’s the execution that matters. At the Commonwealth Games, I couldn’t execute certain shots that I knew I had to. I was trying to overdo it and getting frustrated,” he admitted.
From that disappointment, to turn it around in quick time at a tournament as tough as the Asian Championships, takes a lot of character. After all, the level of competition in Wuhan was significantly higher than at Gold Coast, and to win a medal here has been historically tough for Indian shuttlers. The significance of this win is not lost on Prannoy.
“This is a much tougher tournament as a player, when you look at the quality of players,” Prannoy said. “Popularity wise, money wise, a CWG bronze is much, much better than a bronze in BAC. Not many people would know about the importance of this tournament, but as a player I am really happy that I made it to the semis and to win a men’s singles medal for India 11 years after Anup [Sridhar] did in 2007, I would definitely rate this as one of my best tournaments and a moment to cherish for a long, long time.”
The consequence of this bronze is expected to be a promotion to world No 8 when the rankings come out on Thursday but Prannoy wants to remain focussed on performances and not the results.
“Good to get to that point in the rankings, but on the flip side, there are a lot of points to defend in the second quarter,” Prannoy responded with a laugh. “So, for now, not really thinking about the ranking, it’s about the number of semi-finals and finals I play in tournaments that I take part in. I want to make sure my body is fine, and I focus on performing consistently, the rankings and results will take care of themselves.”