Indian men’s badminton heaves a huge Sai of relief

Shivani Naik
Sai Praneeth reacts after his 24-22, 21-14 win over Jonatan Christie. PTI

India s search for a men s singles medallist at the World Championship has many near-misses in the last decade and half. There s Anup Sridhar in 2006 who had in Round 2 closed out a win against Taufik Hidayat by keeping his best strokes for the last two points as told by Gopichand, but fallen to Lin Dan in the quarters. There was Kashyap, who rued missing out on Gopichand s guidance because the coach had hopped over to plot for Saina Nehwal s match on the adjacent court. There was K Srikanth against Korean Son Wan Ho, who got suffocated by the dragging lull of his opponent s monotonous rallying.

And now there s B Sai Praneeth 36 years after Prakash Padukone who stayed bloody-minded about the rare chance he reckoned he d got to finally medal at a meaningful meet, to make up for 14 years of trying and often failing.

Two nervous men

Sai s match against Jonathan Christie wasn t of supreme quality. Two nervous men, hoping not to blink would best describe the 24-22, 21-14 win. But it was uncharacteristic in how the compulsive fritterer dug his heels in against the Indonesian the second of that country s shuttlers with brimming talent he faced this week.

Sai Praneeth has a lot stacked against him starting with his own strictly moderate fitness. He s injury-free and moving well, but he s hardly the leanest of shuttlers bouncing around the circuit. These weren t fast courts, as he likes them immensely talented, putting in effort into securing winners isn t exactly his thing. At 20-all, former international Arvind Bhat thought, Sai Praneeth was about to chuck the bronze away in the opener, falling to his usual frailty when he botched a smash.

Except, Jonathan Christie was nervous too. Sai Praneeth showed all signs of exhaustion, and like two previous days had this match entered the decider, he d be found wanting. But what he did different from all the past matches of his career, was not give up and fall in.
Sai has worked hard, has been travelling since he was 16, and hence plays with the confidence and experience while inserting those audacious shots into really tight situations where others would be wary.

He has no inhibitions in his strokes. So, strokemaking s efficient, Bhat says. He additionally made the punch clears needed in those courts, count, as well as backing his net strokes and down the lines showing canny shot selecting.

The Hyderabad man tends to keep a cool disposition on court, isn t unduly hassled, and on Friday wasn t up against an opponent who could exploit his laidback body language and fitness chinks. But credit to the 26-year-old who made the most of it. His original strategy even needed mid-game rethinking. The rallies got really long towards end of Game 1. 90 pc of time I was under pressure because I was just hitting, hitting, hitting and that was making me more tired than the rallies. The pressure was building up. First set was very crucial. If he had won, maybe (the result) would ve been other way. So later Gopi sir told me, don t attack, let him attack. Then the rhythm changed, and finally I got the first game, he would tell BWF.

The coach appreciated the effort the unheralded player had in fact put in. Sai s win is big , beating the Korean, Ginting and Jonathan on Days 1, 2 and 3 was good. And Sai typically in a court like this, won t like to play in these slow conditions. But he s really matured, worked hard, pushed himself, the coach stated.

Overall it s been a fantastic win for Sai. For Indian men s badminton, it s definitely another step that s been surpassed. Prakash sir won it many years ago, 36 years ago. So for us from relative perspective for all players and next generation this should be something they see as possible, aspire for, and surpass in the future. He s been with me since 2004. They were all really young kids. It s good to see 15 years later such a big achievement by him. 36 years later for somebody to win the medal is actually wonderful, he added.

Against Kento Momota, Sai will have to figure a lot of things, the rest of the world has struggled to crack. Putting him under pressure is the general idea, which might not be easy in conditions that suit the Japanese. Anup Sridhar who missed out himself despite handing Taufik Hidayat, the reigning Olympic champ a defeat then, said, This is one of the most important results in Men s Singles in the history of Indian badminton. This will inspire generations of youngsters in India to go after the big events in World Badminton. Gopichand was hopeful many others would watch this, aspire to that men s singles medal that hasn t come easy even in the decade of badminton s rise in India, and even surpass it.