Thailand Open: HS Prannoy reconnecting with big wins

The calm in HS Prannoy's game is so much more effective than the storm he can kick up. For an immensely cerebral shuttler, who likes dabbling at complexity, each rally can be a carefully pursued treasure hunt.

Covid bruises the bodies of athletes and it showed in HS Prannoy’s opening round win against World No 7 Jonatan Christie at the Thailand Super 1000. With the ribcage incarcerating his breath, it was difficult for him to keep bouncing off the floor to thwack the shuttle. However, what the pandemic, his own slow recovery and this gentler start to the tournament have done is to set him free of expectations.

Describing the second set, after he dropped the first 18-21, Prannoy would tell BWF: “I just played what I felt like. I was only thinking to make myself happy. Not thinking of the result.” This playing in the moment approach, would give him the 18-21, 21-16, 23-21 victory against a Top 10 player who has done well in the last two seasons.

The Covid year – a very dark cloud personally for the World No 28, might’ve had a silver lining too: it brought patience into Prannoy’s pounding game and paused the pressure of living up to his potential. The calm in Prannoy’s game is so much more effective than the storm he can kick up. For an immensely cerebral shuttler, who likes dabbling at complexity, each rally can be a carefully pursued treasure hunt.

So against Indonesian Asiad champ Christie, when he blitzed smashes from an impetuous but non explosive jump, they found the speed bump in the net. It’s been the story of the talented shuttler’s career – shuttles falling limply at the net at crucial junctures. But if there was anyone equipped to summon a Plan B swapping his usual big-power oxygen-guzzling game, it was Prannoy.

It was when he got his backhand whirring and the drops and flicks started to get him points, the Indian looked in control against the Top Tenner. Three frustrating seasons, negotiating injuries and a body that couldn’t load up to back the booming game, have gone by. An unpredictable infection whose after-effects are still to be determined in entirety and his diminishing game had made memories of scalping big names appear from a distant age. Yet, the confidence that when he pauses to think and play, he can take down the best, remaining in his defiant demeanor.

Prannoy backs himself, knows his skills like a philatelist knows his stamps, but has struggled to fuel the intent with an uncoiling strength needed to enforce his big power game. Hence, he must switch to Plan B which patiently calibrates each attack. It’s why having judged which was the better side of the court to collect points from, Prannoy would go about curating them. Having trained only from the second half of December and just once last week, Prannoy was proud of how he had rebounded from the challenging times.

“I was proud of how I played. And how I probably didn’t leave the game, at any point,” he would say, pleased with his tenacity. Christie would acknowledge that Prannoy switching tactics at the closing stages, stumped him. “I was in control in the first set. But going for too many winners maybe was a mistake in the second set. Prannoy control-attacked and that was hard to defend,” the Indonesian said in addition to the challenge of the drift.

Prannoy would snare out mistakes, pushing Christie back right when he was beginning to get dangerous at the net. Levelling at 20-all, the Indian’s clever change in tactics while he cheerily chatted with fellow player MR Arjun sitting in the coach’s chair, would unsettle Christie. “Two points from 20-18 in the decider increased Prannoy’s confidence,” he would say.

READ | Gopichand recommends HS Prannoy for Arjuna Award

Landing awkwardly on his palms he’d feel the shoulder socket move and call for medical assistance. “Something went off and came back (he pointed to a possible snap). Slightly worrisome. But hopefully it’s fine,” he said.

Christie returning from a 9 month Covid break, though not wholly convinced about that injury, would admit it was his poor luck at any rate. There’s a plethora of matches since 2017 when Prannoy was knocking out the Chen Longs and Chong Weis, when he lacked the composure to finish off. Not on Wednesday. Even when Christie led, Prannoy wasn’t unduly worried.

“I knew I could get onto the better court side and even a 11-7, 11-8 lead would be ok. Just trying to change a couple of things towards the end,” he would say. Prannoy plays Darren Liew next, but would stay unfussed about pressure. “No goals. I don’t keep goals these days,” he would say wryly.

“Physically I’ve not been so up. Last month I had covid. Post covid it’s been really tough on my body. Few days I could train. Last week also just 1 day I trained post the first session because of a lot of issues. So looking at that, my body is not 100 percent. But I’m trying to put my 100 percent on court. Let’s see. I don’t have any targets. I just want to enjoy the tournament atmosphere,” he added.

The fact that Indians are stirring from their slumber all round – Sameer Verma nicked a top ten too earlier – was an added impetus. “If your friends are playing well, you automatically feel like you need to win.

Rest of the team has started well. That gave us confidence, we are not down,” he would issue a friendly warning, early in the season.

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