Taking matches deep and attacking Lin Dan's backhand, how HS Prannoy turned the tables on the icon
'Remember how everybody said cricket will not be the same anymore when Sachin retired? I think it is a bit like that with Lin Dan's retirement,' Prannoy said.
New Delhi: Badminton legend Lin Dan called time on his international career on Saturday, signalling the end of a glorious era in the sport. With the Tokyo Games postponed by almost a year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the 36-year-old two-time Olympic gold-medallist decided that the time was right for him to exit the stage after a decade of peerless domination.
Lin, who ended his career with a world ranking of 19 and a grand total of 666 wins, regaled fans with his sublime skills and a deft mix of power and grace.
India's HS Prannoy, who got the better of the former World No 1 thrice in their five meetings, equated the void that Lin's retirement has created to the vacuum fans felt after cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar hung up his boots in 2013.
"Remember how everybody said cricket will not be the same anymore when Sachin retired? I think it is a bit like that," the current World No 28 told Firstpost from Thiruvananthapuram.
Prannoy, in fact, is the only active Indian player to enjoy a superior win-loss record (3-2) against 'Super Dan'. His contemporary, Kidambi Srikanth, ran Lin Dan close on a few occasions, but the Chinese great held a 2-1 lead over the Guntur-born Indian. Against Parupalli Kashyap and Sameer Verma, he enjoyed a clear 3-0 and 2-0 advantage respectively.
"I clearly remember that when I started playing, he was extremely popular and everyone wanted to play like him. For someone coming from Kerala, it was impossible to think of playing against Lin Dan, let alone beating him. It was a dream come true when I took the court for the first time against him in 2015," Prannoy recalled.
Lin cruised to a 21-15, 21-14 win in that Malaysia Open encounter, but the Indian gave enough hints of his potential. The loss gave him the belief to compete against the best.
"He was just so good, but the fact that I could take some points off him gave me a lot of confidence. That loss made me realise that players like him are different from everybody else and one needs to really raise his game to beat them. After our first encounter, I think he knew that I had some talent. Later as I began to play more competitions, he would look for me and greet me.
"The first time I played him, I was clearly in awe of him. Like I said, it was a dream come true, so I couldn't really believe it at first. There was a lot of respect going around, to be honest, and that, in hindsight, I can say is not ideal when you are competitors. I have played him a number of times, but I felt in awe of him so many times during a match. Some of the shots he could execute from certain parts of the court left me admiring him. Then, I would tell myself, 'okay, he has done it, now you should stop admiring him and respond.' As a sportsperson, it is tough to tell your mind to shut up and focus on the game when someone plays like that," Prannoy said.
Despite that loss in Malaysia, Prannoy managed to analyse his opponent's technique accurately. Mental notes were taken and a strategy devised to counter Lin's compact game.
"I had a fair assessment of his game. I knew his strengths, and I could pinpoint areas where he might crack. I felt he did not like to take a lot of backhands. So the foremost idea was to make him play more on his backhand side to make him a bit uncomfortable. His front-court was very, very strong and he was excellent with his forehand strokes."
When the two met six months later at the French Open, Prannoy was ready. He created ripples by coming back from a game down to hand a 21-14, 11-21, 17-21 defeat to the Chinese. By the end of that match, Prannoy could sense the slight dent he had made in the six-time All England champion's mind.
"Back then, he was much fitter and faster. My agenda was to keep the pace high while putting pressure on his backhand side and not let him control the net, which was one of his strengths. That helped me take the match to the third game. I remember I ran and ran and won the match because I knew that's the only way I can beat him. I guess he knew that he cannot tire me out. When I beat him for the first time, I felt that I was getting into his mind a bit. He knew I could beat him. I was ranked about 40 then, and that win came as a huge confidence booster," he recalled.
Prannoy went on to beat him at the Indonesia Open 2018 and at the World Championships in Basel last year. Sandwiched between them was a narrow 21-18, 21-19 loss at the Australia Open. It was a match that the Indian feels was well within his grasp.
"Lin was at the end of his career, and I realised it is very important to make him run. Obviously, he was fit, but he couldn't maintain that intensity for long periods. At the Australian Open, I could see he did not want me to take the match to the third game, so he played really very well in the first two. I tried my best to take the match long, but that didn't happen. Whenever the match went to the third game, I tried to make him run some more and employ some tactical changes to get the better of him. Having said that, I'd like to say that I never played him at his peak."
Prannoy described Lin Dan as a complete player who could raise his game when the occasion demanded. The biggest differentiator though, he said, was the fact that the five-time world champion was an extremely tough competitor.
"That's what truly made him stand out. Even at the latter stage of his career, he was really competitive. Mentally, he was always up there, it's just that physically, in the last few years he was lagging behind a bit. He was not able to push four-five days in succession and was not able to win something big over the last two years.
"He has won every major tournament in the sport and was able to raise his game at the highest stage. Badminton is a very tough sport, and to dominate it the way he has done is a credit to his hard work. He managed his body very well, and I don't remember him being out of action for more than a month. I never saw him struggling with niggles or wearing a brace or anything. He was always strong, and I could see him putting a lot of effort in the gym."
On the court, an in-form Lin was a sight to behold. Blessed with the ability to change the tempo of the game at will, and sometimes between rallies, he was capable of pulling off outrageous strokes from inconceivable angles that left the spectators gasping and opponents wondering.
"He had a complete game," Prannoy agreed. "He could attack, defend, was good at front and back, had speed and power. Things like weather and the pace of the court did not matter to him. Guys like Lin Dan would just turn up and win without any fuss. I always used to wonder how these guys play so well in all conditions. While a lot of Indian players would complain about the conditions, players like Lin Dan would just play well and win, and that was another learning from him.
"He could do this because he and players like Lee Chong Wei were very confident in their skills. They knew they can play a drop shot from anywhere and it will still land where they want it to. They worked really hard on their skill and were very smooth in the execution. They knew how to conserve energy during the game. Lin trusted his instincts a lot. Even at 19-all or 20-all, he would take some brave decisions, and more often than not, they paid off."
The fact that Lin played left-handed added an extra dimension to his game, and made it that much tougher for a host of right-handers to read his angles. Prannoy believes that in addition to Lin's exceptional courtcraft, this aspect of the Chinese's game made him extra dangerous.
"Definitely, him being a left-hander helped. I have always believed that left-handers have an advantage in all racquet sports because they always practice against the right-handers, whereas the latter aren't used to those angles. In India, we hardly had any left-handed shuttlers when I was coming up, so to suddenly face someone like a Lin Dan or a Kento Momota is that much tougher. I had to alter my game completely to face them, which is not easy during a competition. Then, to execute the gameplan is another story. I have seen Lin Dan struggle against a few left-handers, while all his great rivals were right-handers."
Lin's decision to walk away came almost a year after his great rival Lee Chong Wei announced his retirement, and with that, one may add, the era of gifted practitioners disarming the world with subtle skills has come to an end. The shift has been perceptible, and with players relying a lot on brute strength, the age of flair is all but over. The trend, Prannoy said, is here to stay.
"I have sensed that shift too. Nowadays, everybody is very good at attack and defence. The overall game has gone up, but when these guys were there, a lot of games stood out for their sheer skill. They could play some crazy shots. We hardly see that kind of game anymore because people are banking a lot on fitness and power smashes. The game has slowly shifted to a place where fitness is foremost. Of course, fitness was a top priority in badminton even back then, but we see very few risky shots being taken. People are playing less flashy games; it is safety first. So you don't see the game that people like Taufik Hidayat had. It is a bit like Roger Federer's game. Rafael Nadal is a great champion too, but why do so many people want to just watch Federer play? It was the same with Lin and Lee Chong Wei.
"I thoroughly enjoyed their rivalry. If they were playing in a competition, I would watch them live. If not, I would catch their match on TV, but I made it a point to never miss their matches. The game is not fancy anymore. Of course, we have guys like Kento Momota and Viktor Axelsen who have speed and strength, but there's something inexplicable that is missing. Lee was a true great too, and if not for Lin, he would have won everything," Prannoy concluded.
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