The year 2017 has been a watershed one for Indian badminton, especially for the men's section, as now there are five male Indian players inside the top-20 of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings.
One of the players who was instrumental in ushering what could be called the 'golden phase' of Indian men's badminton is the 25-year-old Hyderabad-born, currently World No 17 shuttler, B Sai Praneeth.
In April this year, he won his first Superseries title at the Singapore Open and followed it with the Thailand Open Grand Prix Gold title in the span of a few weeks.
Talking to Firstpost, ahead of his interview on the show "Umeed India", Praneeth spoke about his roller-coaster journey in 2017.
The World No 17 has set his eyes firmly on reaching the year-ending Dubai World Superseries, where he ranks No 12 for now.
Talking about his chances to make it to the flagship event, he said, "There are four more Superseries events and there is very little difference in the points between me and the players ranked higher. If I perform well in one or two events, my chances of making it get brighter."
If he manages to put up a good showing at the the Denmark, French, China and Hong Kong events, his other aim of breaking into the top-10 might also turn into reality.
However, things have not always been this smooth for the 2010 World Junior Championships bronze medallist.
A promising career was plagued with injuries that pulled him down by more than just a peg or two in the past few years.
Even in 2017, he suffered an injury that saw him miss out on the All England Open and Swiss Open right after he finished runner-up in the Syed Modi International Grand Prix Gold event.
Since then, Praneeth has been playing with renewed confidence, with special focus on his fitness and talent. He credits the Pullela Gopichand Academy and its core team for his turnaround.
"I have been working on my injuries and everyday the physio and the team take care of my physical fitness. They strengthened my injured areas and guided me in the process of rehabilitating all my muscles, especially the weaker ones."
The Pullela Gopichand Academy is house to names like Srikanth Kidambi, PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal and Praneeth was effusive in his praise for the academy headed by the chief national coach, Pullela Gopichand.
"Earlier there were no such facilities for top players. Gopi sir started this academy to give something back to the country and he is very hardworking. He wants his players to be champions. The academy is a major reason for the success of our players."
With five male Indians in the top-20, it is natural that these players face each other very frequently in the marquee tournaments. These frequent run-ins in such a competitive atmosphere has the potential to upset the off-court equations among these shuttlers.
However, Praneeth dismissed such claims and said, "The relationship on the court doesn't affect our off-court equations. We have a group of seven-eight top singles players and it is a major advantage while playing at this level. We play with each other regularly and the competition and our level of performance gets higher. If one player from our group wins, the others gain confidence from it and want to improve. It is a team effort and is a good thing."
Praneeth attributes the appointment of Indonesia's Mulyo Handoyo as India's singles coach as one of the major reasons for the upheaval in his career and men's badminton in general.
"When I was out of action early this year due to injury, those two months of training under Handoyo sir gave me the confidence on my fitness and I've maintained my fitness level ever since."
Though the Indonesian's approach to the game was unlike the ones Indian players were accustomed too, the results are now out there for all to see.
With longer training sessions, focus on endurance and strength, Handoyo ensures that the players remained motivated to give their 100 percent both in practice sessions and international matches and were players were pushed harder than before.
Praneeth, who broke into the top-25 only in April 2017, is known for his giant-killing abilities, constantly beating higher-ranked opponents in international tournaments.
Answering a question about the relevance of rankings in an individual sport like badminton where the points system might not quite be a yardstick for calibre, he said, "Obviously, the first thing is performance and the ranking follows performance. Though maintaining ranking is crucial for a lot of reasons, winning titles is more important."
It is on the basis of maintaining his rankings and amassing points that Praneeth made an impressive debut at the 2017 World Championships where he went down fighting in the Round of 16 to Chou Tien Chen.
Though the World Championships features a similar set of players who compete in the Superseries and Superseries premier events, Praneeth believes it is the importance assigned to the Worlds that makes all the difference.
"The competition level is same, but the level of tournament itself is high. Winning the World Championships is a bigger thing than winning the other tournaments."
While facing such stiff competition from players across the net in a practice session to shuttlers across the globe, the training has also got more intense in the Indian camp.
"Our session in the morning is from 8 to 12 and the evening session is from 4 to 6. The only thing we get to do during our practice days apart from training is to eat, take rest and sleep. It is only on our off-days that the group catches up on a movie or just goes out to make our minds free."
With the senior contingent consistently performing on the international stage, the next crop has also started to make its presence at the bigger stages with players like 16-year-old Lakshya Sen, who recently won the Bulgaria Open International series title.
Talking about the emergence of the next batch of players, Praneeth said, "It is always important for the junior batch to continue and cope up with the seniors for the development of the game and on that front India is doing very well."
Senior players like Praneeth are not just inspiring the growth of young badminton players in the system, but also proving to be worthy ambassadors of sport in general.
Praneeth, in an attempt to portray the trials, tribulations and effort behind his growth and development, will take part in the 12th episode of "Umeed India" hosted by Virender Sehwag set to be telecast in Epic TV on 5 October at 8 pm.
Through this show, Praneeth, who will be in action later this October at the Denmark Open, wants people get to know the machinations behind a player's success and hopes there is an improvement in the exposure and publicity.
Updated Date: Oct 05, 2017 13:12 PM