American Mathew Fogarty was on the World Championship courts at Basel for 23 minutes on Monday playing a mixed doubles match at age 62, so one can never really tell when it ends.
But given the next Worlds will be in 2021, it can be speculated that HS Prannoy might just have given 35-year-old Lin Dan’s fans the last glimpses of the most legendary game at a World Championship. The unseeded Indian dream-crusher won 21-11, 13-21, 21-7 in a 62-minute Round 2 game at St Jakobshalle to cause the biggest upset of the day.
That this qualifies as a tremendous upset could mean that maybe the end isn’t nigh. Lin Dan won a title in Malaysia just the other week, he’s ranked World No.17 which is higher than both Indians who progressed to Round 3. Also, he’s still China’s No 3 after Shi Yuqi and Chen Long, and who but Indians will remember how he ended K Srikanth’s run at Rio in the quarters. Super Dan was also a silver medallist at Glasgow Worlds in 2017 and an All England finalist in 2018.
His lower left arm – which dumped a shuttle into the net on the last point on Tuesday from a push in vain giving Prannoy the win – has a still-unfaded tattoo of five World titles stars under the stark biceps and his autobiography Until the End of the World dwells long on dealing with adversity and pouncing on one more chance.
So, fading gently into the night wasn’t the sort of opponent HS Prannoy was going to meet, after a stiff opener on Monday. And the defiance came soon enough, after a near-perfect opening set where Prannoy pushed the southpaw physically and metaphorically to his backhand long court, scoring smartly.
Prannoy – owing to his innate explosive power – seems like a wound-up spring when he is dealing solely in geometry and placements and building blocks for a well-constructed rally. And so it was when he took off from 6-2 in the opening set – points collected with precise shot-making. Dan, one suspects, was biding his time, getting a good look at his younger, fitter, speedier opponent whom he planned to suppress in a bit.
Prannoy’s no pushover – never has been since first beating Dan in 2015 at Paris, and at Indonesia last season in one of Prannoy’s giant-killing moments. They stood at 2 matches apiece, but the first indication that this could go Prannoy’s way was when he pocketed the first. The Indian has always beaten the two-time Olympic champ in three, and Lin Dan has always relied on straight sets to overpower Prannoy. Still, the drama was only beginning.
National head coach P Gopichand watched the incoming tsunami. “Lin Dan was smart in the second. He was setting it up well, hitting it softly. He was getting Prannoy to return it at the net and rushing forward to tap it,” he said. Dan would launch one almighty fightback – moving swiftly suddenly and proving to be a hawk at the net, even as Prannoy couldn’t quite push him back like in the opening set.
It was 1-set all in no time as Dan used the same speed-shock – a sudden flurry – that had helped him beat Chen Long at Malaysia earlier.
Prannoy battles a lot of demons at most times. These even bring the best out of him. If there’s a point to prove, you know HS Prannoy is out there brooding somewhere. He’s copped his share of criticism of not winning titles, not seeing a tournament right through and not doing his game justice. He carries a chip on his shoulder, and those very shoulders uncoil in one snapping moment as he smashes fiercely.
Here’s what Prannoy was thinking: “Lin Dan’s always a tough player. He’s played last 20 years and got the experience in big events, especially in conditions like these where shuttles are slow, halls are big. You can’t take him for granted at any time of the game.and that was running through my mind all the time.”
Coaches would convene post the second set, and drill some solid pointers into him. “Even in third game when I was leading 11-5 I was cautious this should not slip away and I need to be really focussed on next points, and not rather think about the win. And that helped and that is one thing I need to do on an everyday basis and not just against Lin Dan,” he would say.
The Indian who sneaked into the World Championship last minute after a spurt of withdrawals, got his strategy chiselled, coming out with a roar after picking the first point of the decider with a scorching return. Gopichand explains: “In such a scenario where Lin Dan had come back into the match, Prannoy did very well to actually come back. He surprised him with a lot of good punch clears. Also where it mattered, he hit him hard which hurt Lin Dan. And Lin Dan basically just lost his rhythm from there. Overall it was a very smart match against the Chinese who normally finds rhythm. Prannoy was able to upset that.”
This involved raising his own speed – which side of the court didn’t matter – and denying Dan any traction at the net. It was also a cerebral takedown, as he upped the intensity. “Overall he mixed his game up. There were times he rushed, other times he cleared. Sometimes he played drops. Smart of him to not let him get rhythm that he got in the second game,” Gopichand stressed.
The coach himself holds a 2-1 record against Lin Dan – from the latter’s early years. After a loss at Singapore, Gopichand had beaten Dan on sheer deception.
“Of course that Lin Dan to today’s is a completely different picture, so great Prannoy pulled it off really well. But over the years from a power and speed player to one who developed deception and strategy as his main strength, has been Dan’s evolution,” he explained.
Prannoy would benefit from his two coaches willing him on after the reverse in the second. “In the second game, the strategy went opposite way,” he told BWF, “thankfully coaches helped me at the right time. A couple of points I had to change the game and that was the key. I’m really happy I was patient today and ready for a long match,” he said of a slow-shuttle day.
Even Lin Dan isn’t big enough a scalp for Prannoy who wants to go deep into this week, and has the toughest man lined up next. “I’m looking forwrd to Momota because there are some things I need to prove and this is the event which I need to do it in. I need to believe I’m a big tournament player and probably this might be a good day to do it.”