A spark has been lit with B Sai Praneeth’s bronze medal at the World Championships. But the legend like a candle can burn out faster than the wind. A good follow-up shot to India’s first men’s singles medal in 36 years, would be getting into serious contention at the Olympics. Sai’s 21-13, 21-8 loss to World No.1 Kento Momota in the semifinals had only flickers of possibilities of how intact India’s men’s brigade can emerge from being thrown into a foundry with the world’s very best.
Otherwise, Sindhu-Saina will headline yet another Olympics. For those are the high standards the Indian women have set: win it or leave it.
Just as well that Sai Praneeth went down emotionally after his quarters win against Jonathan Christie, shed some happy tears to celebrate a big rare bronze. For Momota was only going to highlight the deficiencies in a sobering schooling in the 42-minute semifinals. The Indian had more than an inkling. Sai was in the match till 10-10 — a third of the entire duration, unsurprisingly the first unexhausted third.
In this he played a clever cross-game to move Kento Momota from this flank to that, with the crosshairs for the kill focussed on left-handed Momota’s backhand around waist length across his body. Momota’s a master of retrieving, he can do it endlessly.
But he seemed to appreciate when his pet cross-court smash sent from the back court corner had Sai diving full stretch to his right and sending back a return that stunningly cleared the net and teased.
There was also Sai’s overhead smash which he plays like a NBA player’s hook shot – leaning backwards, sending it shooting forward at 12-16. But then Kento had had enough and cleared his throat at this opening act to his big final tomorrow — finishing it awfully quickly. At the other end, the knocking blitz wiped away all thoughts of a smug celebration of a medal, as the rude reality checked in.
“I suddenly lost 3 points with small mistakes and with that the flow,” he said.In a small voice he continued to BWF, “Compared to last time I was playing the strokes, pushing the pace but not getting points. So I was mentally getting tired and I didn’t know what to do after 3-4 strokes went.”
Sai Praneeth praised his conqueror as someone with a “all-round game and can vary it according to the opponent.” There were positives from the tournament, but he didn’t dwell. Sindhu had made her third Worlds final, the sort of stat that buries all comparative positives.But lessons were plenty. “When you compare Momota with other players, you can’t just go in blindly. You need to be fit enough and stay with him and keep on changing strategies.
Main thing is you have to be fit, mentally fit.”Coach Gopichand has linked mental fitness to physical fitness — something that Indian male shuttlers bought into only when Mulyo Handoyo piped in. Korean coach Park Tae Sang, might now start the renewed pestering.
But in light of this medal, former international Arvind Bhat pleads for urgency. Bhat reckons Sai Praneeth, Prannoy and Srikanth all have the necessary games, but need a bedrock of fitness, which is non-negotiable. “Sai has to lose weight. He’s atleast 4-5 kg heavy to be competitive consistently at top medal level. Badminton needs you to be underweight, most top players look malnourished, but all of our men’s singles guys need to get the lean muscle mass up. And this will need sacrifices – doing things they completely hate, like running,” he says. He gives the example of Chinese Lin Dan in 2012 when going for his second Olympic title. “Apparently thrice a week he undertook long runs in hot weather on a scalding beach, just to train for situations that could be completely different. He risked illness and missing out on Olympics even. But sacrifices need to be made, even if it means cordoning players off for a year,” he explained. “Everyone will train 3 sessions like a donkey. An Olympic medal needs a sacrifice above that.” Losing to Kento Momota might just ignite that flame.