Indian Badminton star Sai Praneeth had a rewarding 2019, in which he won a World Championships bronze in Basel and also made the Swiss Open final.
Praneeth also made the semifinal at the Japan Open and reached a career-high ranking of 10. The 27-year-old shuttler is currently the top-ranked Indian men's singles player and one of the favourites to represent India in the category at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
"2019 was a good year for me. I've played some good matches and got some good results. The confidence is always there when you play well," said Praneeth on the sidelines of Premier Badminton League (PBL) season five's trophy unveiling ceremony.
"There's been a good level of consistency in my badminton. I'm happy with the way I played. Maybe, towards the end, one or two tournaments, I wasn't at my best. The World Championships medal and the Swiss Open final were the highlights of the year. Those two changed things for me."
Praneeth also elaborated on his and India's Olympic aspirations. In singles, a country can have two entrants each in the men's and women's categories only if both the players feature in the top-16 in the Road to Tokyo BWF rankings on or before April 26, the Olympic qualification cut-off date.
"There are still four months left for qualification to end. Everybody is fighting for their spot. The ultimate goal is to make the Olympics before April. For two players to qualify, we have to be in the top-16. We cannot plan the results, we can only plan for the tournaments. I need to confirm my spot as soon as possible so that I have enough time to prepare for the Olympics," he added.
The world No. 11 played Japanese superstar Kento Momota four times last year and was unable to come out on top even once.
"He (Momota) is always a winner. I think we have to do a lot more mentally to overcome him because he generally plays a mental game. He's a fit guy. He just waits for the opponent to make the mistake and he never tries to go for quick points. But he's not unbeatable," said Praneeth.
"If he starts losing two or three tournaments on the trot even he can be cracked. There will be some players who are tough to beat in every generation. I think after serving the one year ban (during May 2016-17 for illegal gambling) he has become really strong. He trained hard and it has helped him. We can see the difference before and after. Now, he's physically stronger. The ban was a blessing in disguise for him."
The Badminton World Federation (BWF) restructured the tour in 2018 and made it mandatory for "top committed players" (singles players ranked in top-15 and doubles players ranked in top-10 after World Tour Finals) to play at least 12 tournaments in a calendar year, instead of the original 10. Players like Kidambi Srikanth and Viktor Axelsen had openly criticised the move in the past.
"We can't play so many tournaments. Once the World Championships is over, you don't have the time to play tournaments. We have the China and Korea Open, then we immediately move to Denmark and Hong Kong. We have no choice as we can't skip these. That is not a good thing for the players," he said.
"If you continuously keep playing tournaments without training some injury will occur. There should be some break. If you see, the Chinese and Japanese are a bit stronger than the Indians but even Momota complains about this. After PBL, there are eight tournaments continuously. This being an Olympic year, you can't skip many. So you need to figure out a way to choose the right tournaments."
Praneeth hasn't reached a quarterfinal since the China Open in September last year. He is now set to represent defending champion Bengaluru Raptors in PBL-5. With stars like Saina Nehwal and Srikanth withdrawing from this edition, others like P.V. Sindhu and Praneeth too were rumoured to skip a few outings to maintain fitness during the Olympic year. But the Raptors shuttler, who also won the title with the Hyderabad Hunters in the 2017-18 season, cleared the speculation.
“I'm excited to be part of PBL season 5. I have some good memories in four years and I’ve won two titles. There are so many top international players participating in the league. PBL is the biggest badminton league in the world. That's a very good thing for Indian badminton. It helps the juniors a lot. When they play with the top players, they learn a lot.
"I have a very good chance to qualify for the Olympics this year. By playing PBL, I get a good amount of practice and that's why I'm part of it. So I will be playing all the matches. I won't be skipping any."
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