There would have been very few times in the past when one would empathise with B Sai Praneeth after he loses a close encounter. It is not the case that the 26-year-old always ends up on the wrong end of such scorelines but the losses have been piling up over the years.
And with every loss, Sai Praneeth’s biggest strength has attracted highest criticism.
The 2017 Singapore Open champion, the only other Indian men’s singles shuttler apart from Kidambi Srikanth to win a Superseries title, has a lazy elegance on the court and can mesmerise spectators and even his opponents with the quality of his strokes.
But more often than not, the world number 22 has thrown it all away by either showing lack of patience or allowing his shoulders to droop too early... too easily, prompting even the coaching staff to question his willingness to brazen it out on the court when it matters most.
If one talks to any coach who has worked with Sai Praneeth, they all admit that the former national champion works as hard as any other player during training sessions and hence cannot be faulted for lack of effort. But it is his tendency to get frustrated rather quickly and lose focus that hurts him in the larger picture.
During the just-concluded Swiss Open Super 300 tournament in Basel, where Sai Praneeth lost a high-quality final to world number two Shi Yuqi, coach Amrish Shinde was heard telling the player to not think too far ahead and break the match into blocks of 2-3 points at a time to stay focused.
He managed to do that through the first two games but clearly ran out of steam in the second half of the third before the Chinese top seed overpowered the Indian with raw strength and experience.
But it was a match where Sai Praneeth could not have been faulted for lack of effort.
Sai Praneeth, obviously, has a different take on the topic.
During various informal chats on the topic, the 2010 junior world championship bronze medallist has tried to explain to anyone who wants to listen about how it is always difficult for a stroke player to adjust to changing conditions and it things got worse for him after making it to the senior circuit especially because every loss hurt his confidence and injuries did not help his cause.
It is true that there is a pattern to Sai Praneeth’s career graph ever since he made it to the senior circuit. The 26-year-old can string a series of good results when everything is going his way and then go off the boil for long periods... losing matches he should have otherwise won.
Even at the Swiss Open, Sai Praneeth himself would not have put money on his reaching the final of a tournament given the draw he had and the way he had played till the senior nationals in Guwahati, where he lost to eventual champion Sourabh Verma in another three-game battle.
But he did impress in his win over compatriot HS Prannoy at the All England Open and the turning point for him was the win over another Indian shuttler Sameer Verma in the second round at Basel.
Sai Praneeth had dominated that match till Verma staged a comeback from 16-9 in the second game and saved three match points to level the scores at 20-20. These are typically banana skin moments for the 26-year-old but on this occasion, he managed to keep his composure and wrap the match in two straight games.
The confidence gained from that win clearly showed in the following matches as Sai Praneeth dominated Olympic champion Chen Long in the semi-final and was within sight of his fourth Grand Prix or above level title.
His best period so far was the 2017 season when he won the Singapore and Thailand Open titles in two back-to-back weeks and was really impressive in the World Championship in August despite losing in the pre-quarterfinals against Chou Tien Chen.
It was also a period when Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo changed the training system of the top badminton stars, making them work longer hours on the court on a daily basis to get used to the possibility of playing long matches day through the week.
The abrupt departure of Handoyo, dearth of coaches to work with all the top players coupled with a packed 2018 calendar once again ended up affecting Sai Praneeth’s overall fitness and confidence levels.
“Last year because I was playing so many tournaments, I could not maintain my fitness and with every loss, my confidence went down.
“It’s not like I have changed anything drastically in my training or approach ahead of the All England and Swiss Open. But I think, the performance in this year’s PBL [Premier Badminton League] gave me confidence and here beating Sameer was the turning point,” Sai Praneeth told Scroll.in from Basel after the final.
The tournament schedule would be relatively easier in 2019 with enough long breaks for players to prepare for bigger tournaments. And with two Korean singles coaches joining the camp, there should be enough personalised attention to all the players.
This means that Sai Praneeth would not have much of an excuse to not build on the rhythm he has gained from the run to the final in Basel.
At 26, he isn’t getting any younger and he’s fast running out of chances to prove that this run to the final is no flash in the pan.
Whether he now manages to build on last week’s success and win a few more tournaments in the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will determine how history judges this extremely talented shuttler.
The shuttle is in his court and now, Sai Praneeth has to quickly decide whether to strike it with his trademark punch or the tentative prod that has been his undoing in the past.
The next six months should provide the answers that everyone, including the shuttler himself, is seeking.