He’s used to flying under the radar — B Sai Praneeth has been travelling since he was 18 and has taken his jolly time to arrive. Much happened around him in Indian badminton in these last 6 years — a couple of Olympic medals for the women, a pair of men’s singles Super Series titles, bouquets and bickerings and selection babels.
The 24-year-old would be away from all of it — make all kinds of tricky shots, hold onto his style, win some, lose plenty, introspect over why he could beat marquee players but not win titles, yet always stay in his moment — unaffected by the world.
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On Sunday, he didn’t mind that no one was fussing over him — when he took to the court for the Thailand Grand Prix Gold final. Sandwiched between football’s Champions League final in Cardiff and an India-Pakistan cricket match at Birmingham, Sai Praneeth would beat Jonathan Christie of Indonesia, playing with a poker face and no shrill fist pumping, but celebrating the 17-21, 21-18, 21-19 win with an outbreak of glee — running around the court like an aeroplane and finally showing how much it mattered.
“I don’t follow football much, and cricket, I’ll just see the scores, but in Thailand there was nothing really. So I was focused on my match. I don’t shout much when I play, and there’s no emotion,” – his game when on song croons for itself to the beat of the thwack on the shuttle – “but because it was a close match, after I won, all the tension was released and I ran around the court like I was flying,” he would say later. Thailand wasn’t as big as the Singapore Super Series in terms of ranking points, though Sai enjoyed beating a non-Indian for the title.
“It’s different and it was a tough win after losing the first game,” he would say, befuddled initially by the mix of drops and had smashes that the Indonesian possessed. Christie’s net isn’t too shabby either, and Sai needed to assert his new found Super Series champ confidence on the big decisive points, rallying back from a deficit.
Both players allowed nerves to dominate the closing stages. Christie would tap and smash into the net, Sai would try to rush things and botch things from 17-all right unto the end. Except, something had changed in the Indian when he won at Singapore. He’d begun trusting his game, gotten more powerful in his strokes and he would prevail in the last dribble before a decisive smash gave him the win in an hour and 1 minutes.
“Every title is important,” Sai would say, “and the competition was tough because most seeded players lost. The new players are coming up, and there’s always a surprise element to new players.” That, he could take in all the twists and turns of the week – including a pair of Thai upstarts looking to rise through the ranks in a hurry.
Badminton is bound to shed some heavy duty names in the coming years from its charts, and Sai is determined to line up as the next generation. Starting with Indonesian Open in the coming days where he runs into Son Wan Ho. “He should fancy his chances against the Korean who is a slow starter,” says Aravind Bhat, one of India’s earliest GP Gold winners of the last decade. He reckons Sai has bolted himself into contention to be one of India’s qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics – though men’s singles is bursting with driven shuttlers stacking up ranking points.
In a week’s time, Ajay Jayram, K Srikanth and Sai Praneeth might all find themselves in the Top 16, and with HS Prannoy and Sameer Verma closely following, the race to Tokyo will heat up. Sai holds an edge because stringing together titles accumulates more points and also shows resilience to battle through an entire week. It’s shaping up well given Indians tend to peak at 26-27 in men’s singles, and it is the maturity and confidence that has glued bits of brilliance in his game into a coherent week-long consistent dazzle.
Sai Praneeth, who was held back all these years by low confidence, is high on belief. But he still needs to get faster, add some power to his strokes, and sharper in thinking through his game.
In Indonesia, a Korean World No. 2 awaits, and the Hyderabadi is aware that it’s a tough opener. Except, beating big names wasn’t ever the mental block — stitching up five wins in a week was always the hurdle to get over.