For sheer talent among the wards of the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA), there is no player to equal Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth. This is the unanimous opinion of not just the chief national coach Gopichand, but also of the other coaches at the Hyderabad-based academy, as well as the 26-year-old shuttler's elite batch-mates.
When PGBA's most successful male shuttler Kidambi Srikanth's was having his best year on the international circuit to date winning four Superseries singles titles, it was Praneeth who deprived his friend and regular sparring partner of a fifth title. Praneeth beat Srikanth 17-21, 21-17, 21-12 in the final of the Singapore Open. In fact, to date, Praneeth boasts a 5-2 head-to-head career record against Srikanth.
"Sai is a stroke-player who revels on fast courts and, amazingly, where there is a draft in the stadium," says coach Amrish Shinde. "His accuracy and excellent control over the shuttle allows him to use the net intelligently and adjust his attacking strokes to hit the sidelines even when the drift threatens to take the shuttle out. That gives him an advantage over stroke-players who are not able to play in draughty conditions. There was a big drift in the Singapore stadium which Srikanth could not control, but Sai did, very well."
However, after becoming only the second Indian male shuttler to bag a prestigious Superseries title, Praneeth has had little success on the World Tour. Nor has he shone on the domestic scene, in the Indian Nationals and the two Premier Badminton League (PBL) editions that followed his title triumph in Singapore. If anything, it could be said that Sai Praneeth has merited the unwanted tag of being the biggest under-achiever among Gopichand's products.
That is, until the just-concluded Swiss Open, where Praneeth ended runner-up to top seed and World No 2, Shi Yuqi, narrowly missing the distinction of acing the 23-year-old Chinese star in straight sets in the course of the title clash. The World No 22 Indian was a game to the good and had battled his way to an even 18-18 situation, when his lungs and legs let him down, and allowed Shi to reel in a title he had almost lost to his strokeful opponent.
Anyone who was witness to that highly entertaining final in the vast arena of Basel's St. Jakobshalle could see just how much Praneeth was able to dominate the Chinese star who had defeated World No 1 Kento Momota in the finals of the BWF World Tour Finals last December.
The Indian was in charge of a high percentage of the rallies in the first and second games, and it was only the resolute retrieving abilities of the fleet-footed Shi that kept the pre-tournament favourite in the match. Even in the decider, Praneeth kept up with his redoubtable adversary until 9-11 at the change of ends. Thereafter, his stamina ran out, and the top seed was able to dominate the rallies in the closing reaches of the encounter.
There were two career-defining moments to savour in the course of Praneeth's march to the finals " his first win in three meetings with two-time world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist, Chen Long, and his first triumph in nearly four years over his younger PGBA batch-mate, Sameer Verma.
The Andhra Pradesh native jogged past his lung-opener in the competition when his India-born English opponent, Rajiv Ouseph, was forced to concede the match at 5-11 in the first game, as a result of an injury. Then came a confidence-boosting 21-14, 22-20 win over eighth-seeded Sameer Verma, followed by a routine 21-13, 21-11 quarter-final victory over Frenchman Lucas Corvee.
"Sai had developed a sort of mental block against Sameer, whom he could not beat despite having a superior arsenal of strokes; his staying power would always let him down," says Shinde.
"However, he treated the Swiss Open second-round match as a real challenge and managed to oust Sameer in straight games. But I think he played his best badminton against Chen Long, against whom he had not even taken a game in two meetings during the past year."
Indeed, the No 2 seed had followed up his one-sided 21-12, 21-12 win in their first meeting at the Badminton Asia Championships in April last year with an equally facile 21-12, 21-16 win at the Indonesia Masters, just two months ago. But he found Praneeth a totally different kettle of fish in Basel and appeared shell-shocked as he subsided to an 18-21, 13-21 loss to the Indian in the semi-final.
"Unlike the other big players at PGBA, Praneeth has not had any major injury issues in the last couple of seasons; just the odd niggle that all players suffer from," says Shinde. "His problem has always been stamina; he was unable to play as effectively in the decider of a lengthy match as he did in the first two games. We have worked on this issue over the past two months after the end of the PBL, and the results have begun to show."
Has the Swiss Open seen the beginning of the resurrection of Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth?
Students of the game could see, during his encounter with Shi Yuqi, that Praneeth still lacks the fine edge in stamina that allows a player to play the final game at the same level of intensity as the first two. Clearly, that is an area that needs some more work. But once he becomes fully fit, he will be right up there, for he possesses the speed, strokes and temperament to trouble anyone in the world, plus the ability to play in draughty conditions that often trouble the best stroke-players.