India’s top men’s singles badminton player H. S. Prannoy might have broken a six-year title drought on Sunday when he beat Weng Hongyang of China 21–19, 13–21, 21-18 to win the Malaysia Masters but his celebration following the win was anticlimactically modest. There was no party or even a victory dinner. Prannoy spent his evening by himself in his hotel room with just his trophy and his thoughts for company. “All the other Indian players had left in the morning for Thailand ahead of the Thailand Open. So I was just by myself,” he says over the phone from Kuala Lumpur.
Indeed Prannoy was the last Indian remaining in the competition, a fact that only struck him a day earlier when he walked into the training hall at Kuala Lumpur’s Axiata Arena where the Malaysia Masters World Tour 500 tournament was being held. “It just felt very weird. I was discussing this with my coach (RMV Gurusaidutt) and I said the court looks so empty. And then we realised it was because I was the only Indian around. There were all these Korean and Japanese players but I was the only Indian there. Everyone else had lost already. It was a really weird feeling but at the same time, it felt good that I was still there. I don’t always have that sort of experience,” he says.
It had been a while since the 30-year-old had had the experience of going deep into a tournament and actually winning it. The last tournament Prannoy had won was the USA Open, nearly six years ago. And it had been nearly a decade since Prannoy had won a tournament of the standard of the Malaysia Open – Rated World Tour 500 or higher – which he did when he won the Indonesia Masters in 2014 when he was 21.
The fact that Prannoy had had such a long winless streak would have seemed inexplicable to those who have followed his career. He was once India’s most promising junior with a silver at the Youth Olympics. He had proved himself capable of beating the very best on his day as his wins over Lin Dan (against whom he actually held a winning 3-2 record), Lee Chong Wei, Chen Long, Viktor Axelsesn, Kento Momota and Taufik Hidayat would suggest. Even now at World Number 9, Prannoy is the highest-ranked Indian men’s singles player on the circuit.
Getting five good days together
Yet for all his flashes of brilliance, Prannoy had struggled to string his upsets into something more significant. At the 2017 Indonesia Open for instance he beat three-time Olympic silver medallist Lee Chong Wei and Olympic champion Chen Long on successive days but then after clearing the field went down to compatriot Kidambi Srikanth who would go on to win the title.
It was something that would repeat itself time and time again. Prannoy got the reputation as the giant killer but never the tournament winner. This wasn’t to say that Prannoy didn’t have anything to show for his years in the international circuit. He had played critical roles in famous Indian wins at the 2022 Thomas Cup and the 2018 Commonwealth Games. But both those gold medals came as part of a team effort, while individual trophies were few and far between.
At some point, Prannoy admits it hurt.
Ahead of the 2022 World Championships, for instance, he had been in strong form reaching eight quarterfinals and two semifinals. At the worlds, he beat two-time world champion Kento Momota and then the previous year’s silver medallist Lakshya Sen to make the quarters. There once again he lost to the unheralded Zhao Zhunpeng of China in three games after winning the first. “That defeat at the Worlds was very emotional for me because I genuinely thought I had a medal chance. I remember thinking that maybe it wasn’t in my destiny to play for a bigger title. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be,” he recalls thinking.
Prannoy admits he felt low for a few days but put those thoughts behind him. Even though he had gone several years at that point without a title he says he always felt a win was around the corner. “There were moments where I didn’t feel great but it never crossed me that I would never win. I always thought that I just needed five good days to win a tournament. It could happen anywhere. It could be at the All England, World Championships, Commonwealth Games, or whatever. I just need to find a way to be at my best for 5 days. I might be playing terribly the previous week but as long as I could find five good days, I would get that win. I always had that belief. I knew I was having three good days but I wasn’t able to convert on the fourth day. I knew it was just a matter of getting one or two more good days. I knew I had to be lucky as well. And finally, everything came together in Malaysia,” he says.
The luck Prannoy speaks of came early in the tournament itself. He almost withdrew from the competition after feeling a niggle in his right hip. “I’ve had more than a few injuries. So I didn’t want to take the risk of making things worse. I had almost decided to pull out. But when I got tests done in Malaysia, it turned out that it wasn’t a serious issue as I originally thought. So that’s when I made the decision to go ahead and play. There was a moment where I didn’t really expect to play and I ended up winning the whole tournament. I think because I wasn’t really expecting anything to happen I was able to play more freely,” he says.
But even luck doesn’t fully explain Prannoy’s success. He feels that it was his performance over the past year that finally began to pay off this time around. “I might not have won any individual tournaments last year but it helped a lot that I was consistently able to make the quarters at least. Right now the men’s singles field is really competitive. Players from the top 15 or 20 are all capable of making the finals. So by playing as many matches, I was able to get information about where I was, what I needed to do to get to the next stage and what other players were doing. If you are losing in the first round every time you aren’t able to get that match awareness,” he says.
A win early in the tournament against World number 6 Chou Tien Chen gave him the confidence that he was playing well and from there the wins just kept adding up. “My attitude was on point this tournament. There was no doubt or confusion on my part. I was confident about what I had to do. That showed on the court. That helped me push through three-setters. If my attitude was low, I would not have been able to dig deep when things got tough,” he says.
That change in attitude is also something Prannoy has been working on for some time now. “I had thought about this in the past- why I wasn’t able to play consistently at a good level. And I figured out a few years back that the reason was that I was thinking that how well you play is determined just by the time you spend on the court. In fact, I needed to be doing a lot of things off the court,” he says.
Stepping out of comfort zone
Over the past couple of years, Prannoy has been consciously trying to step out of his comfort zone.
“I was uncomfortable doing a lot of things but I had to do them because that’s the sort of feeling you face when you are in a high-pressure situation in a match. I used to hate doing psychological sessions and half-hour sessions where I just focussed on breathing. But practising those feelings makes life on the court a lot easier. That has changed my career,” he says.
Even all the work he had put in seemed to fade in the background during his final when Hongyang pulled back from a 3-point deficit to equal the final game at 18-18. “There was a moment where I felt things were getting tight,” he says.
At that critical stage, when previous thoughts of his long victory drought and near losses could have swallowed him, Prannoy says he let go of his nervousness. “Maybe it’s something that’s come to me because I’ve had so much experience of losing. So instead of just thinking I had to win, I just told myself it’s ok if I lose. I’d done well to get to this stage and no one was going to yell at me for those last three points. So I told myself to take things a little easy on myself and just see what happens,” he says.
While a World Tour Super 500 title might not be the biggest tournament to win – The Malaysia Masters are 9 World Tour Super 500 tournaments which are superseded by six World Tour Super 750 and four World Tour Super 1000 – it’s hugely significant for Prannoy.
“The first call I had after the win was with Gopi sir (Pullela Gopichand). It was a good feeling. We have been working a lot for the last 12 months and even when I wasn’t getting the big wins initially he was telling me to stay patient and saying that the wins would eventually come. He was the one giving me confidence all the time,” says Prannoy.
There is not going to be as much need for Gopichand to keep pumping up his player. “There’s so much confidence you get from actually winning a tournament,” he says.
The fact that he’s got a major win just a couple of months shy of turning 31 is another boost. “I can’t say I haven’t thought about the fact that I’m not the youngest player around. But the fact that I got this win proves to me that the changes I’m making in my training are working. Maybe I could have tried them earlier in my career but I guess it’s better late than never. I beat players who I had a losing record against (Chou Tien Chen in the first round and Kenta Nishimoto in the quarterfinals) I also played four three game matches which were over 75 minutes each. So I know my body can play these long matches one after the other. But the most important thing is that I can finally say I’m a World Tour 500 winner,” he says.
Apart from the confidence that comes with the win, Prannoy will quantitatively benefit from the fact that his win comes in the first month of the Olympic qualification cycle. But he’s also careful not to make too much of his win just yet. On Monday he will fly to Singapore where he will be competing in the Singapore Open (World Tour Super 750).
“It’s great to have won. But nothing really changes. Badminton is a very hectic sport and I’m only as good as my most recent result. There are tons of tournaments lined up. The Olympic qualification cycle has started and I can’t take things for granted. I have to be as focused tomorrow as I was for this tournament,” he says.
Indeed Prannoy doesn’t want the Malaysia Masters to be the highlight of his year but just a stepping stone for bigger wins to come. “I was disappointed that I didn’t have a major tournament win for many years because I thought I had the game to play big matches. But now the goals are much bigger than just winning a World Tour 500 title. I want to be consistent in playing at this level. I understand why playing finals is so hard because I know how tough it was to find six good games consecutively. But that’s what the best players do. That’s what I think I am capable of doing as well,” he says.
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