Write-off shuttler B Sai Praneeth at your own peril!

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A file image of B Sai Praneeth.

(Twitter)

Write-off shuttler B Sai Praneeth at your own peril!

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Madhav Agarwal

06/09/2022

B Sai Praneeth is India's leading shuttler and is currently ranked world no.19. After showing a spate of strong performances till 2019, where he won a bronze medal at World Championship, he has been going through a slump in form and has been trying his best to get out of that phase.

To see China's three-time Olympic medalist, Chen Long, getting beaten by an Indian is perhaps the sweetest feeling. It was the Swiss Open 2019 semifinal match, and the second seed Long was up against then world no.12 Indian. Coming into the match, the latter had never won against the Chinese, and yet he had that air of confidence, to do the unprecedented, that fateful day. The Indian engaged in cross-court rallies, was quick on the net, and didn't really let Long focus on his strengths. The result? The Indian won the match by a margin of 21-18, 21-13, to move to the finals of the event. 

This Indian player was B Sai Praneeth, who after this win over the best player in the world, had the confidence to achieve bigger goals, the same year. He reached the quarter-finals of the Indian Open & Thailand Open, and semis at the Japan Open, getting past players like Kenta Nishimoto, Tommy Sugiarto, and Kanta Tsuneyama, regularly, which laid the foundation for something bigger. By August that year, it was time for the World Championship and Praneeth was seeded 16th, in a field that boasted of Long, Lin Dan, and Anthony Ginting.

But the Hyderabadi was a man on a mission -- to get the country's first medal in men's singles since Prakash Padukone's bronze in 1983. And without dropping a game till the semis, he did get a medal for the nation. In the process, he steamrolled past Ginting in the third round, 21-19, 21-13, and Jonathan Christie, 24-22, 21-14. Post that, he went on to beat Lin Dan at the Denmark Open, a couple of months later.

All these wins over the top players, and medals at the biggest event, were just a testimony to all the prodigious talent Praneeth always possessed. After all, he was a Junior World Championship bronze medalist, the same year Viktor Axelsen had emerged winner, back in 2010. And soon afterwards, he started to beat players like Muhammad Hafiz Hashim, Taufik Hidayat, and Lee Chong Wei. But in 2019, when all the desirable results were coming to Praneeth, little would he have expected things to go so wrong, that even one win would be hard to come by. 

Yes, that is exactly what happened in the 2020 season. Marred by Covid-19, it was the start of a new era for one and all, and while some coped better with the pressures, Praneeth, unfortunately, fell into the other group. This is not to suggest that Covid was responsible for his slump, but a date that just coincided with his dip in form. That year, whatever little tournaments happened, he looked ordinary, was lacking confidence, injuries plagued him, and he failed to win a match even. 

Confidence plays a big part in his game, and sports persons from around the globe, he just could not bring out his best on the court, something which showed in the Tokyo Olympics, where he crashed in the first round, after defeats to Misha Zilberman and Mark Caljouw. Just for reference, look at what Indian cricketer Virat Kohli was in till 2019, and how he has been struggling post that, without taking away anything from the fact, that he is a world-class player. It is only confidence, which separates these two from functioning on the level, at which they were a couple of years back. Praneeth believes so too. 

"The last two years have been really tough undoubtedly, especially after the Olympics, in fact from the Olympics. Sometimes even I have no clue or tell where am I going wrong, because I have been training hard all this while, and doing what a top professional player needs to do. All I can say is that this time will go away too, that is all I can do, apart from training as hard as I can," Praneeth told SportsCafe. 

"Just talking about the Olympics, I haven't really shared it with anyone, but the part reason for ordinary returns was that I had a severe back injury. And then there was a lot of pressure to just perform well; lots of expectations from the fans, and then the weight of my own expectations was also there. Once I entered the Games too, I think I was overwhelmed by the whole situation, and my mind was just not there. Probably I was thinking a lot. I do not want to use it as an excuse, but my coach and physio were also not there. So all this just added up, and it was a no-show. Before any tournament, I am generally a positive person, but that wasn't the case with the Olympics. All I want to say is, that I tried."

All these losses then played their part in taking away his confidence even further. So much so, Praneeth admitted, that he just wanted to step away from training, a basic for any player, and get some wins at then-upcoming tournaments. This, of course, did not help his case. "From there on, it just went downhill. I took a break of 10 days and went to the Sudirman Cup since I didn't want to train back home. That obviously did not work out well for me. I think I was exhausted with all the training I had done for the Olympics; three months there, and I just could not take it anymore. That was the worst possible decision at that time, I could have made. I played continuously till December and lost 50-60% of my fitness as well. Since then I haven't been a 100% fit, and still trying to get back to my previous levels."

Now after all the results that didn't go in his favor, there is only scope of things getting better for him or this is at least what all his fans hope for. "What happens when you lose, and that too against lower-ranked opponents, you tend to lose confidence. That is what had happened to me as well. Even though I was playing well in patches, something was still lacking in the game. After Thailand, I have had a decent break now, and hopefully, this will be a new start for me. All I need is one match to change things around for me, just waiting for it now. 

"In the World Championship last year, I was leading against Calijouw in the third game and thought that could have been the match to change things around, but unfortunately, that wasn't the case. I would have played quarters with Srikanth there if that had happened. I would have taken a quarter-final result any day, with the sort of confidence I had coming into the tournament. Come India Open, I thought I had trained well, but then I got Covid. So it has been a frustrating time for me. There, with many players missing, I was the second seed. I don't know. My mind tells me that I have the game to be among the top players again. I have done it in the past, and still, have it in me to turn the tables."

This is not the first and the last time that a player has so woefully been out of form. Look at Kidambi Srikanth. Practically, from the time he reached world no.1, back in 2018, he had no results to show in the next two years. He also couldn't make it to the Olympics. But in 2021 roared back to form with a World Championship silver medal. Perhaps, Praneeth can get some inspiration from his buddy.

"Just look at Srikanth, he was world no.1 in 2018, and then fell out of the top 10 in the rankings. For the next three years he did struggle a fair bit, and so did other top Indian players. But both have made comebacks. It's just about getting out of that phase. Gopi sir also told me to just focus on the training, and the results will eventually come. With the kind of experience he has, his assessment cannot go wrong. So it is a matter of time before I bounce back," he signed off. 

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