It was perhaps the first controversy that national coach Pullela Gopichand had found himself in: he had asked a bunch of international shuttlers to pull out of tournaments and, instead, devote time to training in the national camp to prop up embarrassingly low fitness levels of Indians. B Sai Praneeth, Gopichand’s earliest trainee (alongwith P Kashyap and Saina Nehwal) was a baby-faced 11-year-old then in Hyderabad and he’d watched his mentor stand his ground and weather that ideological storm – picking training over tournaments, eschewing ranking points for readiness to last matches, and thinking long term.
Over the next dozen years, Sai Praneeth would earn himself a reputation: of a fancy shot-player. India’s young crop of singles players – Kashyap, Ajay Jayram, Prannoy, the Verma brothers and Srikanth were all skilled shuttlers, but the restive 24-year-old Praneeth was possibly the most talented of Indian stroke-makers on the circuit. He was a dazzler on court, and earlier this year, wowed Fernando Rivas— Carolina Marin’s coach—with his net dribble, cooked four-ways as he trained with the Olympic champion. At the Academy, they would stop and watch as Sai Praneeth would pick the dipping shuttle lower than anybody else at the net to clip it back cross-court. Then there was the signature overhead crosscourt – if he played that shot early, his team-mates knew he would be on a roll.
Slowly, Sai Praneeth would be seduced by the dazzle of his own cross half smashes and cross net strokes, at the expense of stamina and strength bolstering – unglamorous training, inevitably worked on in quiet, monotonous gym corners, and crucially away from his magic wand – without the racquet and shuttle. While it fetched him some marquee scalps here and there, Sai Praneeth – a contemporary of Srikanth and Prannoy and Sameer Verma – would fall back in results. “His batch mates improved quicker than him, Sai took a little more time to understand his game,” says his senior and buddy P Kashyap.
Gopichand, though, was running out of patience. Like a decade ago, he would once again enforce the decree: No one with sub-par fitness, who couldn’t last a tournament, would go play a tournament. Sai Praneeth was the first to be culled out—packed off to improve his endurance earlier this year. And soon after PBL, he was pulled out of the European swing —German Open and All England.
“I told him couple of months, just training. I was not very happy with his PBL so I didn’t let him play,” Gopichand says. The boy who had long believed his unbelievable strokes could pull him through – against any opponent (for it did: he’s 4-1 against Srikanth incidentally, and equal with most other Indians save Prannoy 1-2) – was sent away back to the trenches to improve his stamina, and deprived his beloved competition, and applause.
On Saturday a couple of vindications happened. Sai Praneeth made his first Super Series final of his career, thrashing Korean Lee Dong Keun 21-6, 21-8. And coach Gopichand – who’s stayed dogged to his unbowing principles – got himself a dream final. For the first time in men’s singles Super Series history, two Indians will fight it out for the title with K Srikanth finishing Anthony Ginting of Indonesia 21-13, 21-14 to line up for the Sunday final.
Heavily influenced by the Chinese (who in their pomp had 17 such all-Chinese occasions), Gopichand finally has his fantasy scenario: two pairs of unoccupied chairs behind two Indians on both sides, as two of his most talented blokes fight it out – unassisted, on their own – for the Singapore Open title. Only Denmark and Indonesia, besides China, have enjoyed this luxury: an assured gold.
Does the coach have favourites? He is as pragmatic as ever. “Maybe if this was a semifinal situation, I’d have chosen one most capable of going on to win a final. But this is the easiest, most unemotional final for me. It’ll be a good one,” he says.
Having not travelled to Singapore, he doesn’t intend to brainstorm with his wards on phone either. “Maybe if I was there, I’d have caught them together at the same time, and spoken to them together. But not today,” he quips, pleased with the result where both Indians have looked dominant through the week. Kashyap reckons it’s a tasty clash and it’ll be their head-to-head that’ll weigh into this one. Not just the 4-1 loaded glaringly in favour of Sai Praneeth, but a number of which they’ve both lost count. Srikanth and Sai Praneeth play each other every Wednesday and Saturday; game-days at Gachibowli, and some of their best shots might not even be played since they know each other’s games inside out.
Srikanth has the big final experience, and the big smashes. India’s two time SS winner boasts one of the circuit’s speediest jump smash and tap-kill, and plays the tight net kills at a dizzy high pace: his backhand flick cross-court which brought him at level 10-all in the opener and deflated the Indonesian so spectacularly he never recovered, is delicious deception as it ribbons over the net.
“No stroke is a winning stroke since they both can read the other,” the coach says, though watching India’s most creative shuttlers combine the feistiness with flair will be a connoisseur’s delight on Sunday. Saina Nehwal and Sindhu may be mighty competitors, but Srikanth and Sai Praneeth need to be watched for their artistry. Sai Praneeth has faltered in the past against long rally players, though he negotiates attacking, speedy ones (like Srikanth is) quite nicely, so you can expect them to totally alter their character.
But given Sai Praneeth was exiled for two months to prop up his stamina for the long rallies, and he’s made the finals immediately, Srikanth will have a think or two before he tries to win his third SS title.
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