What a battle; oh, what a battle!
For an hour and 11 minutes of gruelling badminton at the 2017 Thailand Open Grand Prix Gold championships, India’s B Sai Praneeth and Indonesia’s Jonatan Christie fought toe to toe, giving and asking for no quarter, exchanging as many jabs as haymakers, producing strokes of rare vintage, drawing liberally on their dwindling reserves of physical and mental energy, and giving the enthusiastic crowd at Bangkok’s Nimibutr Stadium a men’s singles final to remember and cherish.
It is sad that, in such an encounter, there had to be a winner and a loser. It was only the greater hunger, steadiness and determination of the third-seeded Praneeth that saw him edge the fourth-ranked Christie by a 17-21, 21-18, 21-19 scoreline, and register his first title at a Grand Prix Gold event, to add to his maiden Super Series triumph at the Singapore Open in mid-April.
In what was their first-ever meeting on the international badminton circuit, Praneeth could not have hoped to counter the scorching pace, power and sustained aggression of the 19-year-old Christie – at No. 27 on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ladder, ranked three places below him – with the same weapons, because he simply did not have either those lightning-fast movements on court or that whiplash smash.
Instead, the 24-year-old Indian made full use of his own attributes – the ability to slow down the game by employing the dribble and counter-dribble at the net, the accurate clears to the baseline, an obdurate defence that had the ability to produce an unexpected angle for the blocked return, and fine courtcraft that allowed him to position himself in just the right spots to counter the Indonesian’s best strokes.
In many ways, it could be said that Praneeth bided his time, and waited for the storm to rage itself out. Christie was well on top in the opening game, in which the Indian concentrated on prolonging the rallies and making it difficult for the Indonesian to get quick, cheap points. It was never easy, for Christie alternated his power-packed smashes with late wristy drops, hit with almost the same action.
It was the first game that Praneeth had dropped in the entire tournament, while Christie continued to maintain a clean slate. The Indian, however, opened well in the second stanza, grabbing 5-0 and 8-1 leads, but his opponent did not take long to rediscover his rhythm and draw level at nine-all. Neither could break away thereafter, until Praneeth dominated the net exchanges from 14-15, to gain a slender two-point lead, and hang on to it, to take the joust to a decider.
The third game was a mirror-image of the second, only in reverse. It was Christie who took a massive leap to 8-2 with some speedy, aggressive play. But the wily Praneeth refused to panic, and once again rode out the cyclone, prolonging the rallies and putting up a resolute defence against the best smashes that the Indonesian could rain down on him. And once he had made up that deficit and neutralised the margin at nine-all, the Indian kept pace with Christie all the way to the finishing tape.
There was nothing to separate the antagonists but a point or two, until Praneeth opened up a slim 18-16 advantage, and appeared on the verge of victory. At this stage, he received a dreadful line call at his baseline, when a Christie push that he had correctly judged to be out was called in by the linesman.
Television replays showed that the shuttle had landed a half-centimetre out at the baseline, but since there was no player challenges or a decision review system at Grand Prix Gold tournaments, the umpire stayed with the line call. Praneeth protested bitterly but to no avail. Instead of being 19-16 in the Indian’s favour, the score became 17-18, with Christie serving.
Most players would have been rattled at the injustice, but Praneeth took it in his stride and concentrated hard on the next rally. One could see the steely determination in the close-set eyes, under that unruly mop of hair straddling the forehead. And when the Indian returned a fierce Christie overhead jump smash with an artistic crosscourt block that had the Indonesian spread-eagled on the court in a desperate dive, he was on the cusp of victory.
But the battling Indonesian was not done yet and managed to tie the scores at 19-all with some excellent aggressive play that included a superb, deceptive overhead crosscourt drop when his opponent was expecting a smash to the forehand tramline.
It looked like anyone’s match, but Christie, in his haste to put the finishing touches on a lengthy rally, hit an overhead down-the-line smash into the net, to concede match-point. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Praneeth used a rare body smash in the best Saina Nehwal tradition – not too powerful, but well directed – that cramped the Indonesian for space and wrote “finish” on the 71-minute encounter.
The final few points in that prolonged encounter showed the quality of Praneeth’s temperament, and his ability to remain calm and collected in the face of a poor line decision at such a crucial stage of the match. This is the stuff of which champions are made, and Indian badminton-lovers can only hope that the Andhra Pradesh native and Gopichand Academy trainee will perform similarly in future, and give India a male star who can take on the best in the game, and still hold his own.
Updated Date: Jun 05, 2017 19:37 PM