Singapore Open: Sai Praneeth shrugs off indifferent form, injuries to reach 1st Superseries final
B Sai Praneeth was once touted as the next biggest name in Indian badminton but injuries derailed his career. He has rediscovered his form after months of hard work and now finds himself in the final of a Super Series event.
A 20-year-old shuttler from Hyderabad had sent shockwaves through the international badminton circuit when he stood tall in front of some of the heavyweights in back-to-back tournaments in 2013. Eyebrows were raised and a few just couldn't believe what they were watching. The former All England Champion Muhammad Hafiz Hashim of Malaysia was the first victim as an unseeded B Sai Praneeth fought back from a game down to win the match dramatically in the first round of the SCG Thailand Open.
Just weeks after that iconic win, Sai Praneeth spoilt former World and Olympic champion Taufik Hidayat’s final international appearance in front of his home crowd in the opening round of the 2013 Indonesia Open. He continued his courageous show at the Hong Kong Superseries by upsetting crowd favourite Hu Yun just days after the Thailand tie. Shuttlers and fans alike started to wonder if these were the early days of the next superstar.
However, before rubbing shoulders with a handful of greats at an early age, Praneeth had already made his name in the Indian circuit after bursting onto the scene in 2010, winning the bronze medal at the Badminton World Federation's (BWF) World Junior Championships. Although the Pullela Gopichand pupil won the Iran Fajr International title in 2010, he hadn't started his journey the way he wanted. Aspirations were definitely high but it takes more than what meets the eye to compete at the ultimate level when you are in the teens.
A couple of years later, after religiously working on his physical side of the game, Praneeth lifted the Bahrain International silverware in an evenly-contested thriller against Sri Lankan Niluka Karunaratne. This was the beginning of his race at the international level. Slowly and steadily, Gopichand and Praneeth's hard work started reaping its rewards. Praneeth showed signs of his ability to cover the court quickly and execute net plays with accuracy. This saw him bag the runner-up prize at the Tata Open International Series in 2012, losing to RMV Gurusaidutt in the final. The then 19-year-old was, in fact, regarded as one of the top young Indian shuttlers in the list of fellow players Viktor Axelsen, Son Wan Ho, Zulfikar Z and Sameer Verma.
They say injuries are a part and parcel of the game but in reality, it takes away so much from players that sometimes they never play the sport again. Praneeth was plagued with persistent injuries which saw him make early exits in tournaments, and for around 16 months, he had a drastic dip in form as he remained out of touch with the game. During the gap, he witnessed fellow shuttlers like Ajay Jayaram, HS Prannoy, Kidambi Srikanth and PV Sindhu grow immensely and made his return by winning the Sri Lanka, Lagos and Bahrain International series in 2015.
Nevertheless, in 2016, Praneeth was back in the mix, continuing his beloved trend of upsetting big names following his thumping straight-game victory over the World no. 1 Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia in the first hurdle of the All England Championships. In July, the Hyderabad-born shuttler decided to take the Canada Open on his own and claimed his maiden Grand Prix title after defeating Korean Lee Hyun 21-12, 21-10 in what was a lop-sided final.
"I never expected the final to be so easy but I am happy the way I played. I'm happy that I won the tournament and beating Lee Hyun-il gives me a lot of confidence going ahead. I think I played well in this tournament," he told PTI.
"It doesn't change any targets as my target is to win something big and I know I'm not too far from that in terms of capability, he added.
But even after all these victories over upstaged shuttlers, the 24-year-old has never experienced winning a Grand Prix Gold or a Superseries title. Earlier this year, Praneeth's hard work went in vain as he was defeated in the final of the Syed Modi International Badminton Championships at the hands of old friend Sameer Verma. On Sunday, he stands a chance of putting his hands on the elusive Singapore Open Superseries title following his recent triumphs over Qiao Bin, eight-seed Tanongsak S and the comprehensive one over Lee Dong Keun en route to the final.
In the final, Praneeth will square off against fit-again and in form Srikanth in the men's singles final. This will be their fifth meeting and Praneeth holds the edge over Srikanth with a 4-1 win-loss record in competitive matches. They both have created history as this will be the first time that an all-Indian final will take the center stage in a Superseries competition. So far only three nations achieved this marvellous feat — China, Denmark and Indonesia.
If one doesn't believe that Praneeth has everything to reach the highest echelons of the game, here's what Olympic quarter-finalist Parupalli Kashyap had to say about him.
"I've said this many times before. Sai is perhaps one the most skillful players in badminton today. I wish I had half as many strokes as he had. He has such supple wrists that he can change his shots at the last moment. His game is all wrist. When he gets going and starts playing his crosscourt shots, you can't match his half smashes or at the net. Compared to Srikanth or anyone else, he is far more skillful," Kashyap was quoted saying by ESPN.
"His problem has been that he has so many options of strokes to play that he gets confused," Kashyap added.
The world number seven Indian will next play Hong Kong's world number 34 Cheung Ngan Yi in the group stage.
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"In April, when the situation was pretty bad in India, seeing so many people die because of COVID was tough. In my family, I lost my maternal grandfather, it was a difficult time," he said.
"Indian Badminton has seen great success with two successive medals coming from Olympics and with this latest news of the World Championships is the right stimulant for the game," BAI general secretary Ajay Singhania said.