Chen Long lost 21-18, 16-21, 21-19 to Indian HS Prannoy in Indonesia, and declared he was operating at a 90 percent of his potential. 9 out of 10 shots of that beastly game that won the Olympic gold in Rio are still formidable, even if Long has only won the Asian Championships since the Games and his last Super Series win came in October of 2015.
So Chen Long isn’t a prolific champ on the circuit like Lee Chong Wei and neither does he carry the reputation of being unbeatable like Lin Dan at his peak.
But what Chen Long most certainly is, is a massive looming presence on court when he stalks the net, a champion whose physical prowess masks his ability to be deceptive, and a good, self-respecting Chinese defensive automaton even at 90 percent who can retrieve till the end of time.
Against this force of nature, 24-year-old Prannoy, displayed a wide array of strokes and wits to match in the 75-minute-long encounter. No matter how fragmented the drive and motivation of the two, Prannoy can always claim he beat the Olympic silver and gold medallists on two successive days at the Indonesian Open, playing like a bonafide top contender.
“There is nothing wrong in losing to a top world player,” Chen Long would admit later, even as he admitted he was still testing his skills and collecting points at tournaments this year, and the last 10 percent would be summoned at the Worlds.
But first the fairytale of Fantastic Friday for the Indian. Coach Pullela Gopichand talks about his ward’s aggression as an entity that in Prannoy best stays sheathed.
The young man has a bit of a reputation at the academy. “He can be excessively scary at times, and his opponents feel it on court,” the coach explains. Long might be a beast towering over the court, but Prannoy is known in Indian circles as the big man, not the lightest around, with unconfirmed six-pack abs but an eminently confirmed power-punch in his game.
He’s not someone Gopichand had to tutor in aggression. “You don’t need to show it if you have it inside you — opponents are automatically scared,” he says.
It was perhaps why he never looked overpowered by the massive Chinaman even in rallies he didn’t dominate. Coupled with some sharp movements and a body defense so assured that he exuded confidence when he merely retrieved shuttles without breaking a sweat, Prannoy was ready for a follow-up to his biggest win of his career in terms of rankings — against Chong Wei.
He would strike an awkward length that caught Long near his shoulder and smashes that didn’t waver out of the lanes. In fact such was Prannoy’s control on the steep smashes played to the lines coupled with a very respectable netgame that Long was rattled into spraying his own smashes. The Indian would open up a lead at 8-14 in the first and with a lovely tumble-shot at the net pocket the opener to give himself a good look-in into Long’s iffy game.
His attack might’ve been tepid, but his defense is intimidating and at 13-11 in the second set, Long’s low stretched retrieve at midcourt just flicked inches off the ground would end a winner, as he would level the sets. Still, Prannoy was constructing his points well, his aggression leashed to follow a plan that Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo instructed.
In two pristine points, Prannoy would do what Handoyo’s most illustrious ward Taufik Hidayat did: use the boom smash from back court as a set-up point and rush to the net for the soft kill. Like chip-and-charge in tennis, Taufik had mastered the loading and release of the manouvre, and Prannoy would neatly execute the drill — something that’s worked a dozen years against Chinese of the last generation and charmingly Indonesian.
Still, it was expected that the Olympic champ would strike back soon enough. At 4-7, Prannoy was staring at a Set 3 taper off; except he wasn’t in a mood to let go. He would smash-and-charge to level at 12-all, and thereafter refuse to blink in long rallies using the block at the net and an angled crosscourt as a variation.
A bit of luck
At 18-17 came the moment of the match — one of the best in Indo-Chinese shuttle lore. The rally was lengthening and Prannoy would effect a diving retrieve and Chen Long would go for a net kill and almost begin to pump his fist when the Indian stuck his backhand in the way to send it right back over the net. 19-17. A smash, and a slice of luck later, Prannoy induced an error from Long, with nerves not fiddling with his calm plans.Mulyo would look ecstatic, as Prannoy went down on one knee to soak in the moment. “Beating a Chinese is a big thing in our country,” he would tell BWF later, adding, “since yesterday’s win, everyone was again excited about badminton.”
In his 4th meeting with Long, Prannoy had decided to not plan. “Frankly speaking I didn’t prepare for today,” he would stun the local reporters before candidly adding, “The way Chen Long won yesterday, 21-7, 21-9, I didn’t want to watch, that would’ve played with my head and I’d have started thinking it’s so tough. I’ve played him before so I knew what to expect. All I told myself was pick one shuttle more than Chen Long.”
The lead-up to Indonesia hadn’t been a happy one. He was pulled out of the Sudirman squad and asked to work on his fitness by Gopichand.
“Playing Chen Long is always physically tiring. He doesn’t make mistakes, always keeps shuttle in play. But today in last set, I was not getting tired. Physically I felt very sound and confident. That was important,” he said.
Training with Mulyo has meant longer sessions than what they had earlier that’ve been back-breaking for all of India’s top men’s singles players. “Training is physically tiring, everyday he pushes us. But that’s what’s getting us the big wins in Super Series,” he added.
His roommate K Srikanth would also make the semis and will play his big match against Korean World No.1 Son Wan Ho on Saturday after a straight sets win. “Indian current players are attacking and they don’t mind training hard and have a great will to train a lot,” Mulyo would concur, talking to reporters. “I want to be with them till they reach international championships at the top regularly,” he added.
In Prannoy’s case, Mulyo has found explosive power in the backhand. “There is a solidness to his backhand,” Gopichand said. “It’s an unorthodox backhand, raw power with weapons. We’ve not worked on it much, it’s been like this for 8 years – the power and angles on the backhand.” The legend is set to grow after two back-to-back wins over shuttle’s biggest names.