New Delhi: Seventy-one minutes after they played first of their 112 rallies of the day, a drenched B Sai Praneeth dropped his racquet and crumbled on the court. The applause from the crowd reached its crescendo as he lay spreadeagled under the unforgiving lightbulbs. The scoreboard confirmed the proceedings – 18-21, 21-16, 21-15 in his favour.
The match against compatriot Sameer Verma though was nothing what that scoreline suggests. It was badminton's equivalent of dogged, pound-to-pound boxing, and yet, shorn of the shock value it deserved.
Verma and Praneeth have been training at the Pullela Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad for a decade now, which leaves little room for secrecy between them. They know each other's game inside out, and Praneeth said it made the task tougher.
"We have been practising together for ten years. When you play an opponent so regularly, it makes a match very tough. He knows my weakness and I know his, and during a match, since there is no coach in the corner, there's nobody to tell you anything about strategies. You are pretty much on your own," Praneeth said.
Despite a five-place gap in their rankings – Praneeth is ranked 20 while Verma is 15th – there was no clear favourite before the match. A head-to-head of 3-2 in Praneeth's favour explained precious little.
Verma took some time to find his groove, conceding the first two points, but soon moved to a 6-4 lead with a combination of deft strokeplay and an error-prone passage from Praneeth.
That the two know each other's game was evident in the way they pre-empted each others' moves; each being in position early to take shuttles.
Verma flew to an early lead, but Praneeth kept his calm to win four consecutive points from 7-9 down to go into the mid-game break with an 11-9 lead.
After the break, Verma started with a net error and Praneeth made it 13-9 with a smash. Verma won back three consecutive points to bring the deficit to one point but a Praneeth return soon caught him napping. At 13-14, Verma played a brilliant deceptive move to first draw Praneeth to the net and then lobbed one over his opponent to make it 14-all.
By this time, Verma had become a well-oiled retrieving machine; the 24-year-old returned as many as five smashes of varying pace and trajectories before Praneeth erred. A beautiful smash and an unforced error from Praneeth made it 18-15 for him, but Verma upped the heat with a dipping return. The four-point cushion at 19-15 was enough to nullify the three laboured points that Praneeth won, and Verma sealed the first game in 22 minutes with a 21-18 scoreline.
"When you are into the match, you really don't know what to do, and such matches are always very tough," Praneeth, who recently reached the final of Swiss Open before going down to China's Shi Yuqi, said.
Verma started the second game strongly, taking the first three points before Praneeth equalised. From then, the lead alternated between the two Indians, with none holding a clear advantage. While Verma's anticipations and reflexes stood out, Praneeth, despite his proclivity to self-destruct, hung in.
"Sometimes during long rallies, I played a stupid stroke and hit the net, or hit out. It was the same with him," Praneeth would later admit.
Verma moved into the mid-game break with a slender 11-9 advantage. Upon resumption, as he nosed to a two-point advantage, Verma's body language became increasingly aggressive even as Praneeth's shoulders began to drop. Even when he restored the equilibrium – twice, at 12-12 and 13-13 – Praneeth's spirits gave no signs of returning.
Verma, perhaps eager to build the lead, hit two consecutive returns long to slip to 13-15, but it was Praneeth who, for some reason, looked more frustrated. An unforced net error didn't help matters, but the 26-year-old found enough will to move to a 16-14 lead. It soon became 17-15 as Praneeth's jump smashes returned and an over-eager Verma was sucked into errors.
Praneeth then won four consecutive points to force a decider. It also meant that he had won six points on the bounce; enough to shift momentum and instil faith.
"When you are playing a rally, sometimes the opponent will make some mistakes, while sometimes I will make some silly mistakes. The outcome of such matches depends on such small margins.
"Towards the end, if you win two points, obviously the opponent comes under pressure. At such stages, both players want some quick points, which increases chances of errors. Who plays the right strokes and has better temperament has an advantage," he would say.
As in the second game, Verma started the decider with a bang, cruising to a 4-1 lead before Praneeth narrowed it to 5-4. Next, he unfurled a fresh barrage of smashes, and unlike the first game where he was stonewalled, this time one sneaked past Verma's defence. 5-5 became 9-5 for Praneeth soon after as his compatriot began to feel the pressure.
He came back with two points, but a couple of return errors meant Verma handed back the lead, and momentum. Praneeth went to the break with a comfortable four-point advantage (11-7), but a relentless Verma surged to a 14-13 lead with a delectable drop at the net.
Praneeth, drained and dripping, nosed ahead at 15-14 which became 16-14 with an over-ambitious return from Verma. At 16-15, a Praneeth smash finally wrong-footed his opponent, and a gentle fist pump replaced his drooping shoulders.
Praneeth swiftly moved to 19-15 when another jump-smash landed at Verma's left foot, and went to match point when the latter missed a return. 20-15. Then came another smash, and as the shuttle collapsed short of Verma's flailing racquet, Praneeth went down too – his arms up and his will redefined.
"I was 12-7 up in the third game and suddenly he made it 13-12. I was confused. It was a crucial period of play and Sameer was really getting into the game. There's no time to think in such games; you can't think of creating rallies because you just want to win quick points," he later said.
Thursday was the second consecutive day when Praneeth played a three-game encounter – he beat qualifier Gulshan Kumar Kartikey 22-24, 21-13, 21-8 on Wednesday. That match, he said, unwittingly steeled him for sterner tests.
"Yesterday, I unnecessarily played three games, but I guess it helped me today. I think matches like these give you confidence abt your physical condition. I have been playing continuous tournaments and have not trained one week continuously since PBL. I am tired, but I am hoping to play Srikanth tomorrow. Let's see," he flashed a smile of relief and resignation. Later in the day, Srikanth defeated China's Lu Guangzu in straight games to confirm a quarter-finals clash with Praneeth.
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Updated Date: Mar 28, 2019 21:06:19 IST