For long he was the eternal bridesmaid of Indian men’s singles badminton: a bundle of talent threatening to dominate the circuit with the odd stunning win against fancied opponents. But the 27-year-old Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth never really produced the kind of consistency that could have pushed him to greater stardom.
But, now, fresh from his world championships singles bronze — the first medal for an Indian men’s player since the legendary Prakash Padukone won in 1983 — Sai Praneeth is determined to be in his own zone and start producing the kind of results that should separate him from the rest of the crowd.
He took to badminton thanks to his aunt Sridevi — his mother’s sister who was a contemporary of chief national coach P. Gopichand, who interestingly also became a shuttler thanks to his aunt, his mother’s sister Manchali — Praneeth got a feel of the shuttle for the first time in 2000 at the Fateh Maidan Indoor Stadium. Like many after an early stint with fellow-shuttlers under the tutelage of Dronacharya awardee S. M. Arif, who in a way was a pioneer in making Hyderabad a badminton hub, Praneeth joined the then newly set up Gopichand Academy in 2006. Since then he has been one of the key singles players for India though never really making the kind of impact in terms of winning titles.
The 2017 Singapore Open — where he stunned practice partner K. Srikanth in the final — Praneeth confesses, changed his career in terms of feeling that he belonged to the elite in the league — a far cry from the days he was stuck between the world rankings of 30 and 40 for close to two years.
“I just couldn’t figure out what was going wrong during those two years. I tried hard and the support staff led by Gopi anna too worked a lot on me. But somehow I was failing to deliver in the big tournaments. Something was lacking,” he recalls.
“But once I beat the great Taufik Hidayat in front of his home crowd at the Indonesian Open and then later got the better of world No. 1 Lee Chong Wei, things started looking better for me,” he says.
“Foremost, the confidence level was up after these wins and I began playing much better. Yes, I should have won more titles than just the Singapore and the Thai Opens,” says the touch artist who is often compared to the elegant Chetan Anand of yesteryear. “Well, it is a great compliment if someone says that, for Chetan anna was one of the best players India has produced and having watched him for long, I am not sure whether subconsciously he had an influence on my style,” he says with a big smile even as he says that he owes his badminton career to Gopi.
What is the big change that he sees in his game now? “Honestly, strokes have always been my strong point. My major concern has been on the fitness front. And now I am really working hard. By God’s grace, if I am injury free, I should be a more consistent performer now,” says Praneeth.
“I don’t think I have to train differently now. As I said, it is a question of staying fit and focused and importantly keep winning titles. Beating a top player and then losing to a lower-ranked player in the next round — this is what I would like to avoid,” he explains.
“I remember my first tournament win — the national under-10 title in Bengaluru. For me, it was just like any other event though I was too young then to even dream big. Yes, my parents perhaps felt confident that I could be a big player,” he says.
“So, the Singapore Super Series title win was the turning point of my career for after that there was a change in attitude and I broke into the top 25,” says Praneeth.
“Definitely, a couple of injury breaks hampered my career. So, now the world championships bronze is obviously the biggest of my career and I don’t think even 10 Super Series titles will match a medal in the worlds,” says a visibly elated Praneeth.
“Now, the pressure of expectations will be there for sure. And people will keep commenting if you lose. But on my own, I do feel I have to live up to the expectations and since I have the experience to handle it the onus is on me to keep doing well,” he says.
What next? “Now the biggest challenge is to compete with my fellow players, especially when it is obvious that only two from India will get a quota in men’s singles at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. So, the battle lines are drawn with the likes of (Kidambi) Srikanth, (H. S.) Prannoy, Sameer (Verma). This is a huge task,” says a smiling Praneeth.
“I sincerely believe getting there to the Olympics is far more difficult than actually playing in it, like any other Super Series event. You have to get there and then plan accordingly,” he says.
On competition in the men’s singles, Praneeth says it is really tough with plenty of juniors being a force to reckon with.
“Well, the worlds bronze has been the best moment for me in my career and I am determined to better it with an Olympic medal. So, I will have to put my best foot forward, train really hard and step into a different zone,” says Praneeth, who feels good with his strokes and net play.
With the feeling of being a world championships bronze medallist and an Arjuna awardee sinking in now, what are the lessons from Switzerland?
“If you remember the semifinal against defending champion Kento Momota which I lost, he was a complete player with the ability to change his style and tactics according to the opponent. This is what I would love to master in the coming months. The ability to spring a surprise on the given day for better results is what I will be trying to improve,” he signs off.
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