Coming into the quarter-final match against Kidambi Srikanth, B Sai Praneeth would have fancied his chances against the higher-ranked opponent. At least on paper he had a better head-to-head record of 5-2. And those increased when he won the first game 23-21.
Srikanth had saved three game points before falling short. That was the confidence Praneeth needed. It showed as he took a 7-1 lead in the second game and was on course to reach the semi-final.
But as the match picked up pace and Srikanth found his groove, Praneeth was forced to try different things. Srikanth, on the other hand, kept things simple. He first overturned the deficit to 8-7 and then extended it to 15-11. He had no problems closing out the game 21-11.
With the match headed into the decider, the crowd got behind both players as they exchanged smashes and a few drops. In the early stages of the game, Sai Praneeth once again showed why he has got the better of Srikanth on previous occasions as he raced to a 13-10 lead. But when it mattered most, at 19-19, he made an error of judgement and the latter converted the next point to clinch his first semi-final spot in six months.
Since his stellar season in 2017, Srikanth has not won a single title and every reminder of that statistic frustrates him.
“Stop comparing me 2017,” he said when a question about his breakthrough season was asked again after his quarter-final victory. “I have much more to give and I have grown from there.”
He wants to remembers the two high points of 2018. “There is 2018. I became World No 1 and I won a CWG medal. We have all moved on.”
“It’s two years ago. Think about 2019 and I am thinking about 2020. Don’t make me go back to 2017. I am thinking about the future. Whatever has happened has happened. I can’t just go back and start from 2017 again. Now, it’s all about getting back to full fitness and doing well in the Olympics for me.”
The frustration is justified. It’s been that kind of form since December 2017. Though he has won a Commonwealth Games medal and defeated Lee Chong Wei at the same event, he is yet win a BWF World Tour title.
He took a step closer to it by reaching the semi-finals on the home turf. He will take on world No 30 Huang Yuxiang of China and would hope to continue from where he left against Sai Praneeth.
On Friday, he hit all the right notes. Dazzling with his net play, smashing with all his might when he had chance and ultimately keeping his calm.
Even when he lost a few points in a row, he only looked down, gathered his thoughts and prepared to receive the serve from his opponent without getting frustrated with the situation and trying to hurry things up.
“When it was 1-1, I gave him three-four easy and one stroke points. I just thought about building a rally and fight it out for every point. And I think at that moment, I really got four to five easy points and that changed things,” he said analysing the match.
Now with the final spot within sight, Srikanth doesn’t want to slip up.
“My goal is to play the final... every time I play a quarter-final, I don’t think about anything but winning that match. That’s the case even if it’s the first round,” he says.
But the challenge would be to recover from the gruelling quarter-final encounter and Srikanth believes he can, giving a throwback to 2017.
“I played a three-setter in the first round and I am happy to do it again,” he says. “There are still matches left and I was able to last two weeks consistently in 2017. I don’t know if I am at that level yet. But I am training hard and I am confident with my fitness levels. But to me, it shows when you play such big matches throughout the tournament.”
Srikanth will be the the favourite to win the semi-final as he leads the head-to-head record against Huang 3-1 with the Chinese winning their most recent meeting at the All England Open in 2018.
But with the crowd at the KD Jadhav Indoor hall sure to back him, Srikanth will be expected to improve the record further and hopefully end the wait for a title.
While a title here will serve as a big motivation for him, his focus will be on the important phase of Olympics qualification which begins at the end of April.
Srikanth knows that even if he regains the form and fitness he had in 2017, it may not be enough and he has to step up further. “Other players have become fitter since 2017 and have grown since then. Even if I am as fit as I was in 2017, I don’t think it will be enough in 2019.”
At least for now, Srikanth is just focusing on the present and the immediate future and hopes that the questions about the past would end soon.
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