Over the course of his professional badminton career, HS Prannoy has acquired a legitimate reputation as a giant-killer, more than capable of humbling the very best on his day. He remarkably holds a 2-1 record against two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan, and can also claim victories over Olympic champions Chen Long, Taufik Hidayat and Viktor Axelsen as well as three-time Olympic silver medalist Lee Chong Wei.
It’s unlikely any of those wins over all-time-greats will compare, Prannoy says, to his victory in the quarterfinal of the Thomas Cup on Thursday over Jun Hao Leung of Malaysia -- a player ranked 122 in the world. Once a promising junior, Leung has struggled to find his feet in the senior ranks. He was only Malaysia’s third choice singles player in the Thomas Cup – badminton’s men’s world team championships, and hasn’t been in the top 100 since the start of 2019.
Yet you knew how much the win meant to Prannoy, by his full-throated shriek and double fist pump which followed the net kill that secured the 21-13, 21-8 win over Leung. You know how much it meant to the rest of the Indian men’s team too by the way they vaulted over the advertising boards and collectively mobbed Prannoy in an ecstatic bear hug. And if you thought the immediate moment of triumph might cloud objectivity, Prannoy doubled down a couple of hours later when he spoke to Sportstar. “I’d say it would rank it in the top one or two matches I’ve ever played,” he says from Bangkok.
That’s because for all the headline-grabbing victories against top names on his CV, the 29-year-old will admit he’s lacked the silverware to show for his class. Prannoy’s last win on the World Tour came in 2015 and his biggest medal so far – gold in the mixed team event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games – came in a tournament where he didn’t even play a single match.
The win over Leung changes that. It sealed a 3-2 win for India over Malaysia, a side which has won the tournament five times and finished runner-up on another nine occasions. By making the semifinals of the Thomas Cup, India – and Prannoy – secured their first-ever medal in the Men’s World Team competition in 73 years of the tournament’s history.
“This is the one big event that I’ve dreamt of winning a medal in for the last decade. We tried our best in the past too but we could never ever come close. This is a huge moment for me. It’s not just a victory for me but for all the people who believed in me. This is probably one of the biggest days in my career. I don’t think I’ve been this happy in the last few years,” Prannoy says.
Recent times have undoubtedly been hard for Prannoy. While his ability was never in question, he’s always struggled to string his shock upsets into anything meaningful. Wins over Olympic champions were invariably followed by defeat at the immediate next hurdle. His body has unfortunately been prone to injury, leaving him unable to build on even the shortest spells of momentum. Even as other players – first Kidambi Srikanth, then B Sai Praneeth and now Lakshya Sen have scaled the international rankings ahead of him, Prannoy’s own form has slipped -- from a high of world number 8 to a current world number 23. He’s spoken openly about his disappointment at being regularly overlooked for National Awards and last year admitted the challenge of raising funds to continue to pursue his professional career.
For all his misgivings, Prannoy threw himself once more into the fray this season. Changes to his diet – no more bread, milk and chapattis —mental and fitness routines have paid off to some extent – he reached the final of the Swiss Open in March – his first final since October 2019. He’s learned to listen to his body more as well. After feeling a twinge, he chose to skip the Asian Championships and recover, to prioritise the Thomas Cup.
While India had never won a medal in the men’s competition (the women’s side has won two medals in the Uber Cup) Prannoy reckoned this edition might be the team’s best chance to win a medal yet. The fact that he was no longer India’s first or second choice player --that would be All England finalist Lakshya Sen and former World number 1 Kidambi Srikanth – worked in the team’s favour.
It meant that with Prannoy as the third singles player – India would have a higher ranked player playing a possible decider than all but two teams (Denmark and Japan). Indeed while Sen has only won one out of the three ties he’s competed in, he’s ensured Prannoy has faced easier matchups than he might have in previous editions of the tournament. Indeed Prannoy has won all of his ties in the competition. “Honestly, I think this is the best team we have had for a while. We have the right mix of youngsters and a couple of seniors. It’s the perfect mix of players and everyone is pumped up, positive and communicating well because we know the importance of this tournament and the fact that this is the perfect team to do well,” says Prannoy.
But while India was up with a chance, it didn’t mean things were going to be easy. After wins for Srikanth and the doubles pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwik Rankireddy was cancelled out by a loss for Sen and the doubles pair of Vishnuvardhan Panjala and Krishna Garaga, it was up to Prannoy to secure the win. For all that positivity that Prannoy claimed the team was brimming with and the fact that he had a relatively straightforward opponent, he admits he was nervous.
“It’s true that my opponent wasn’t as tough as some of the guys I’ve faced and beaten on the world tour. But when you are playing a team match with a medal on the line, there are no easy points,” he says. Indeed Prannoy had endured a nervy start to the match, falling behind 1-7 in the opening game. A couple of contentious line calls too went against him but he managed to keep his focus. “I took some time to settle. Once I did, I was much more relaxed,” he says.
As the headiness of the victory settles down, Prannoy knows he’ll have to start thinking about India’s semifinal match against Denmark. The two sides played each other in the quarterfinals of the 2020 edition in Aarhus with Denmark winning 3-1. The odds are stacked against India this time too with Denmark’s third singles player Rasmus Gemke enjoying a 2-1 record against Prannoy. “It’s going to be really tough. But we need to believe in ourselves. We have already come so far. If we get to work, there’s no reason we can’t go another step further,” he says.