There wasn’t much by way of cutting-edge technical inputs that Sunil Kumar could give his son HS Prannoy in this pre-teens, when the father coached the lanky lad in Kerala till age 16. The timing of a jump when smashing is, of course, innate if you come from Jimmy George-country. But everything else was cobbled up by trial and error.
Sunil’s closest friends living and travelling in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore brought back tidings of a treasured badminton skill when they visited home, helping the shuttle-crazy dad set about building his little library, an ode to one shot in particular. First they brought the thick, black video cassettes that slided into VCRs and soon after came the sleek video CDs with reels and reels of Taufik Hidayat footage compiled by badminton aficionados of south east Asia — available only if you went looking. At age 10, Prannoy would be shown the legendary Taufik backhand smash on loop — with Sunil patiently tapping on Rewind / Fast Forward buttons – and the young boy would learn the rasping reverse slash of the fore-arm, before he learnt a host of other strokes.
On Thursday, after the first time Prannoy twisted his torso and crossed his arm to shape up for the backhand crosscourt smash midway through the first set, top seed Lee Chong Wei wore a pained expression that never quite left the man.
But as the Indian — a month short of turning 25 — summoned the shot repeatedly to get the 34-year-old legend stumped, it became apparent that the thrice Olympic silver medallist confronted with Taufik’s patent backhand attack was seeing a ghost. In just over 40 minutes, Chong Wei went down 21-10, 21-18 to World No.25 Prannoy who qualified for the main draw at the Indonesia Premier Super Series only after a spurt of withdrawals.
While it needed every ounce of his patience and a steady mind to not rush and botch the winning points when closing out, it was Prannoy’s impulse to aggression that set up a fantastic victory over the former World No.1 and Mr. Consistent.
It was World No.3 Chong Wei’s first loss of 2017, and his second to an Indian overall; Sai Praneeth having beaten him at All England (K Srikanth too has trumped him in the PBL). Dominating net-play and going for short kills at a high pace in the opening set, Prannoy would rack up 6 points on a trot to take a one set lead, Chong Wei never settling into any rhythm.
It was around that spurt that Prannoy would blitz with the backhand smash that had Indonesians doing double takes at memories of what was once their biggest sporting hero’s trademark weapon. “It just came up, I don’t really practice it much any longer, though as a kid I used to spend hours training on it and used it a lot in juniors,” Prannoy told The Indian Express later.
“Usually we don’t risk it in a tournament, but today I decided I won’t think too much, just go and play.” And like muscle memory, the backhand cross court smash would appear and shake the Malaysian.
It was at 10-6 in the second set that Prannoy unveiled the variation. A backhand crosscourt was retrieved by the fleet footed Chong Wei, before Prannoy readied to play it again two exchanges later, except for a last minute wristlock that sent the backhand down the line for a scalding winner. “Down the line needs a lot of split-second calculation and you have to plan the power. Even a tiny mistake and it can go out or into the net. It came off well today,” he would say wryly later.
He would pay obeisance duly when talking to local journalists who lined up to ask him how he played so much like Taufik on the day. “Taufik was my idol when growing up. I watched and learnt how he played. He was one of the most amazing players and I am happy if I can do some things like him,” he told BWF.
Chong Wei grew defiant and assiduously avoided Prannoy’s backhand. The tall well-built Indian would stammer a bit – at 12-13 and at 17-all – but he visibly composed himself, culled out the aggression and responded to the slow rallies by staying patient till the match was wrapped up. Chong Wei sent one long to give Prannoy the set 21-18.
“I knew he gets troubled by aggressive players, so today I decided I’ll rely on that to start with,” Prannoy said, of his early advantage. “My mindset was different today. Before when I was going to play Chong Wei, I had a lot of confusion going on in my head. Today I was much clearer. I was more aggressive with my shots. I was not passive,” he added.
A knee injury had severely braked Prannoy’s career after his Mad Max-turn in the PBL, a wild phase of this year. Snarling and fist-pumping, playing at a maddening speed, he had helped Mumbai reach the finals. But he would remain troubled with a toe problem and remain restless as consistency eluded him.
“It’s been tough for him – injury and adjustment problems,” said father Sunil, who sent him away to the Gopichand Academy at 16. Quite miserable over the summer the parents would go and live with him even as he took in high training loads in the 41 – 43 degree Hyderabad heat.
Srikanth and Sai Praneeth along with Ajay Jayaram had zoomed ahead in rankings, and suddenly the former World Junior Championship semifinalist was falling behind, tethered by injuries to frustration. “It’s motivation to work harder….all of us pushing each other and Gopi Sir pushing us,” he would tell BWF.
Indonesian journalists – still smitten by traces of Taufik in him — would ask him why he was on a heart-breaking spree — breaking Indonesian hearts after accounting for local favourite Antony Ginting and Malaysian ones today, sending defending champ Chong Wei out of the competition. Prannoy would smile, think of all the times he’d lost narrowly against the big names, and reply, “Well, I have broken Indian hearts for a long time!”
Saina, Sindhu lose
Team-mate K Srikanth, who dropped 8 places in BWF rankings to No 22, joined him in the quarters with a 21-15, 20-22, 21-16 win over favourite punching bag of Indians — fourth seed Jan O Jorgensen. Saina Nehwal (against Nitchon Jindapol, 15-21, 21-6, 16-21) and PV Sindhu (against Beiwen Zhang 21-15, 12-21, 18-21) would both lose in Round 2, on a day Prannoy ensured that the whiff of a backhand smash lingered in Indonesia — long after Taufik Hidayat has retired.