In the many informal discussions with B Sai Praneeth on what goes wrong in tournaments and the constant criticism about his work ethic, the 27-year-old has ended up with an expression of helplessness before pointing out that he works as hard as anyone in the academy and national camp.
He would then go on the explain how the drift on the court affects him as a stroke player since he find its difficult to control the shuttle and it ends up ultimately affecting his confidence and results in errors that he often gets criticised for.
It is not like Sai Praneeth has been a complete dud on the international circuit. He upset then world No 2 Lee Chong Wei at the 2016 All England Open, won the 2017 Singapore Open Superseries title and has been in and around the top-20 for the past three-four years. But his lack of consistency and a knack of losing matches from seemingly comfortable positions has been his bane in the past.
But after Friday, all those critical analysis will have to wait as the 27-year-old scripted history by becoming the first Indian men’s singles player in 36 years to be assured of a World Championships medal. The legendary Prakash Padukone had won the only other medal – a bronze back in 1983.
In doing so, Sai Praneeth hasn’t dropped a game in the four matches so far while accounting for world No 8 Anthony Ginting as well as world No 4 and Asian Games gold medallist Jonatan Christie in two fast-paced, energy-sapping encounters that are not only a testimony to his skills but physical fitness.
So what exactly has changed in Basel for the Gopichand Academy trainee, who came into limelight by winning bronze at the 2010 World Junior Championships?
Near-perfect court conditions
Sai Praneeth’s game revolves around his ability to play the percentage strokes with precision and hitting the lines with a variation of shots when the opportunity presents itself. Controlling the length of the strokes in stadiums with drift does become a tough task for any player, but the former national champion found it all the more difficult to make those mental adjustments consistently while playing in such conditions.
But as the commentators have been pointing out from the start, there is little or no drift at the St Jakobshalle stadium in Basel due to absence of air conditioning. This meant that the conditions were near perfect for Sai Praneeth and all that mattered was his execution on the court.
It also helped that the world No 19 was coming from a good run at the Japan Open Super 750 and Thailand Open Super 500 tournaments, where he reached the semis and quarters respectively.
“I think the five week training before the three tournaments in Asia helped me a lot in terms of improving my fitness and the results in Japan and Thailand gave me a lot of confidence. In Basel, the court conditions were to my liking and that draw was also good and that whole confidence allowed me to play well so far,” he told Scroll.in from Basel after beating Christie in the quarter-finals to assure himself of a medal.
Apart from the first match against Canada’s Jason Anthony Ho-Sue where he oscillated between sublime and a plethora of unforced errors, Sai Praneeth has been in command of all his matches. He even matched the speedy Ginting for pace and aggression in the quarter-finals and was very aggressive from the start against Christie.
He found the lines with consistency in all the four matches and his ability to slip in a couple of deceptions to create an opportunity to go for the kill definitely came in handy at crucial junctures.
But it was the physical ability to outlast quicker and more compact opponents in the pre-quarters and quarters that stood out for Sai Praneeth in the tournament so far. This year’s Swiss Open finallist made the hard work he put in under the watchful eyes of coach Pullela Gopichand and Korea’s Park Tae Sang count.
Sai Praneeth’s first real burst of strong results came back in 2017 when Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo was in charge of training this bunch of shuttlers. The arrival of Park has helped him find his mojo again. “Park and Mulyo’s coaching philosophy is almost similar in terms of focusing on fitness and speed. There is a difference in strokes work but it is mostly similar,” he said.
The 27-year-old had benefited immensely by the training methods of Handoyo as he could confidently play three game matches without bothering about his fitness levels and feels that Park has taken over from where the Indonesian left. “When Mulyo came and introduced his training system we were just not used to it. But now we are also ready and that helps,” he added.
Clever game plan
In Basel, Sai Praneeth also showed the intelligence to change the game plan from relentless attack in the opening game to a more patient approach in the second to conserve energy and that played wonderfully well in his hands once Christie was left with no plan but to attack.
“In the first game, the rallies were going on really long and I was attacking a lot and there was a lot of pressure and it made me tired. It was crucial because if he would have won then it could have been different.
Later Gopi sir told me not to attack and that changed the rhythm and I think those inputs helped me a lot,” he added.
Gopichand was also impressed with intent Sai Praneeth showed in the last two matches. “He is physically been better than what he has been before. So things are bit better for him. He is looking to go up on the net and then his game starts to flow much better once he is reaching and looking for points and not worry too much about the conditions.”
The chief national coach admitted that the conditions in the arena helped Sai Praneeth but insisted that it wasn’t too much an advantage for him. “Players who are physical and run a lot, it helps them as well. So its a good court to play and I don’t think even those who lost will complain that the court did something. You go in there, you work hard and if you are ready to sweat it out and put effort, the results will come. And that’s what Sai has done very well.”
The 27-year-old would probably have to put more of those efforts when he takes on world No 1 and defending champion Kento Momota in the semi-finals. The world No 19 has lost to the Japanese twice already this year but had managed to push his opponent, saving three match points in the decider before losing.
Asked about his semi-final encounter, Sai Praneeth said, “I think everybody is trying to find a way to beat him. It is not easy he being the world no 1. You have to put him under pressure, so lets see how it goes. I will give my best.”
With the conditions suiting Momota’s percentage play as much, the semi-final promises to be a cracking affair provided Sai Praneeth continues to play positive badminton as he has done in the last four matches.
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