B Sai Praneeth is counting down the days to the end of what seems like an interminable period of training. His maiden appearance at the Olympics is the light at the end of the tunnel. The 28-year-old will be India’s only representative in men’s singles at the Tokyo Games, which get underway on 23 July.
The prelude to his first Olympics, however, has been far from ideal. The covid-19 pandemic had delayed the Games by a year and later disrupted the badminton schedule, which means that he doesn’t have enough competitive minutes going into possibly the biggest event of his career so far.
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“It is definitely tricky because we don’t have match practice but it is same for everyone,” he says during a phone interview from Hyderabad. Sai Praneeth made the cut for the Olympics on the basis of his ranking: 15. He had a troubled start to the year as he had to withdraw from the second Thailand Open event after testing positive for covid-19, which later turned out to be a false positive. He reached the quarterfinal of the Swiss Open and stretched world No 2 Viktor Axelsen to three sets in the round of 16 at the All England Open Badminton Championships. But the 21-15, 12-21, 12-21 loss to the Dane in March happens to be the last match he has played so far this season.
“I was definitely frustrated when tournaments got cancelled,” he says. “I just took a break for about 10 days, then started training for the Olympics. It’s been a long period of training, but unlike last year, this time I had something to aim for – the Olympics. I was just keeping that in mind. Only two weeks to go now.” The lack of tournaments, though, has given him enough time to address his fitness issues, including a knee injury he had picked up in October last year. His deceptive play is a throwback to all the Indian touch artists of the game. This was in evidence when he ended India’s 36-year-wait to win a medal in men’s singles at the BWF World Championships in 2019. He clinched a bronze in Basel, India’s first since Prakash Padukone won a bronze in 1983.
“He relies more on placement,” says former India badminton star Aparna Popat. “Sometimes the foreign players struggle to play against him. The Indian touch is there. He is quite distinct in that sense, because he doesn’t play that high energy high power game that they are used to. He’s got a good mix.Only thing is he should play well and should be fit because he has to keep up with the pace of the others.” The Musashino Forest Sport Plaza in Tokyo, which will host the badminton event, is known to be on the slower side and may go some way in aiding Sai Praneeth’s playing style. Unlike in tennis, where court surfaces are crucial, it is the air-conditioning drift that dictates the pace of play in badminton.
“The court is slower (less drift), which means he will have better control on the shuttle and placement. He’s not the most agile player – you won’t see him diving, jumping, bouncing off the court, so if the court’s not too fast then his defence should be okay. He is very skillful with his strokes and can cause a few upsets,” says Popat.
Sai Praneeth has shown in the past that on his day he can live with the very best on a badminton court. He had announced himself on the big stage by beating Taufik Hidayat, in front of the Indonesian legend’s home crowd, in 2013. Three years later, he defeated Lee Chong Wei, one of the players who stoked his Olympic dream, in the first round of the All England Championships. He then won his first (and to date only) Super Series, the Singapore Open, in 2017.
Unfortunately, fitness has been his biggest concern and intermittent breaks due to injuries have kept him from performing consistently on the world stage. If the cancellation of events ahead of the Olympics robbed him of game time, it gave him enough time to work on his strength and agility. “Whenever I train well and go for the tournament I’ll always perform well,” he says. “I am fit now and ready to go.”
Along with other Olympic-bound shuttlers PV Sindhu and the men’s double pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, he has been training at the Gachibowli Stadium in Hyderabad under the watchful eye of Indonesian coach Agus Dwi Santoso. “A few things have changed under the new coach,” says Sai Praneeth, who was among the first batch of players at the Pullela Gopichand Academy and is used to having the Indian stalwart in his corner. “Some of the drills and patterns in practice have changed. But the concept is the same with all coaches—they want long sessions, they want players to get tired by the end of the session.”
The top-ranked Indian player is going through the paces, aware that the standards set for him by his compatriots are incredibly high. India has won a medal in badminton in each of the past two editions of the Summer Olympics: while Saina Nehwal broke India’s duck by winning the bronze medal at the London Olympics in 2012, Sindhu raised the bar further by winning silver at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
“Definitely people will have expectations and we have a chance of getting the medal in all the three events (men’s and women’s singles, men’s doubles),” Sai Praneeth says. “My duty is just to focus and give my best. I can’t expect anything but I definitely want to (win a medal). Right now, thinking of the Olympics, the only thing I am nervous about is the covid-19 guidelines.”
Sai Praneeth has been among the crop of talented Indian male badminton players to emerge in the last decade. Kidambi Srikanth has been the clear leader of the pack (of a group that also includes Parupalli Kashyap and HS Prannoy) so far, but Sai Praneeth has largely flown under the radar for much of his career. But it was the unheralded Sai Praneeth who made the World Championships breakthrough. Now, he has the opportunity to break new ground at the Olympics too.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.