Lin Dan’s coaches looked on in a meditative state as their once-prodigious shuttler slumped to an abject surrender in the third and final game of his second-round match against HS Prannoy. India head coach Pullela Gopichand was spotted in a rare moment of ecstasy at the other end as he clenched his fists and let a smile cross his face. It was that kind of a victory for his pupil, Prannoy, whose form of late had left much to be desired with podium finishes eluding him whilst a corresponding slump in the rankings had left him unseeded in major tournaments.
In his first-round match at the World Badminton Championships in Basel, Prannoy had lost the first game against a lowly unseeded Eetu Heino of Finland before sputtering to strength and riding full throttle as he closed out the match 17-21, 21-10, 21-11.
The match against China’s Lin Dan, who has delayed his retirement until next year’s Tokyo Olympics and was chasing a sixth world title, was a tougher bet on paper, just the perfect occasion for the Indian to find his groove on the court. The Lin Dan of today, unlike his former self, is often slow to get off the blocks as he keeps to hitting half-smashes, preserving his winners for a later, more desperate time. Like a marathon runner who knows better than to lose his breath in the first phase, Lin bides his time with full-length tosses from the back of his court as the forehand gains heat.
It was time then for Prannoy to take advantage of his opponent’s sluggishness. He did just that, never playing for the longer exchanges but finishing the rallies with deceptive cross-court smashes which would leave the Chinese wrong-footed and languishing at the wrong spot.
On other occasions, Prannoy rushed Lin Dan into committing errors by prolonging the rallies. Just when the Chinese World No 17 seemed to have hit a smash for a cross-court winner, Prannoy would dive full-length with alacrity, back on his feet in no time to continue the exchange. The rallies would end with Lin pushing one wide off the tramlines. The Indian rode to a comfortable 16-9 lead before closing out the first game 21-11.
However, in the second game, it was all Lin whose superior shot-making skills kept the Indian on edge. In the first point itself, Lin hit a sharp smash down Prannoy's backhand, prompting a tame return which he swatted with ease as he sauntered towards the net.
The net exchanges in the second game had Prannoy stranded too close to the net. On several occasions, he could only watch Lin's return fly over his head, beyond his reach. Passivity crept in for Prannoy when the foot should have been kept on the pedal, his jump-smashes never showed up at the opportune moment. Through it all, Lin proved why winning the first game in a match against him is often a sleight of hand for the match effectively gets underway when he heats up.
Hence, winning the first game against Lin is more often than not, an indication that the match is inevitably heading to a decider and so it did as the Chinese went to the mid-game interval leading 11-8. He’d widen that gulf to 15-9, his angled drop shorts with the deceptive wrist work having Prannoy lurch sideways, subjected to gruelling bends and turns as he looked to return. However, all of that effort was of no avail as Lin kept to the net, closing out the points with a nonchalant push, embarrassing the Indian who was again stranded too close to the net.
The Chinese went on to close out the second game 21-13. In the third game though, Prannoy assuaged the fears in the Indian camp. He recalibrated his approach and jumped at the half-chances, pulling out the smashes even while moving backwards.
It was shot-for-shot from thereon. Both players would engage in longer, more furious rallies which ended with one of them hitting a down the line smash just shy of the tramlines. That was until Prannoy rode on his momentum, not letting up on the aggression, just as in the first game.
He would consign Lin to one corner, pushing the shuttle down his wrong side and forcing him to play a backhand, before slotting his returns comfortably down the other end.
The Chinese, affected by the speed of the rallies, looked tired with an air of resignation painted across his face. He’d shrug his shoulders while looking towards his coaches who had seen much better times during the veteran’s heydays when he’d often assume an unplayable tone. Today though, he had looked a shadow of his former self, losing 11-21, 21-13, 7-21 to Prannoy.
Time catches up with everyone. It did with the Danish great Peter Gade who too played till he was 35 but couldn’t satisfy his lust for an Olympic medal.
So it has with the 35-year-old Lin, the five-time world champion, who’s looking for the final hurrah in his twilight years, a fitting end to his glorious career, a treble of Olympic gold medals to his name. It remains to be seen if he can achieve that elusive glory come next year at the Tokyo Olympics.
Updated Date: Aug 20, 2019 19:47:11 IST