In Basel in Switzerland, one man has been looking at the bird just like the warrior Arjuna of the Mahabharata looked at the eye of the fish. He is Sai Praneeth, winner of the Arjuna award for badminton this year. The result of that work ethic is that he has now gone where only one Indian male player has gone before – the legendary Prakash Padukone with a bronze in 1983.
Praneeth, who has entered the semi-final of the World Championship is certain to return home with a medal, ending a 36-year-long drought. He has for company, the magnificent PV Sindhu who too entered the semis, to win her fifth World championship medal. From an India perspective, it will be the first time that the country will have a WC medal in both men’s and women’s singles.
To understand the mind behind Sai Praneeth, the player, rewind to a conversation I had with him a couple of years ago over lunch at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. Discussing badminton, life and food, the shuttler explained his game to me in one simple sentence.
“I represent India and I want to win.”
That’s the spirit the 27-year-old has exhibited in Swiss country. He did not let a big title bog him down, playing against the 2018 Asian Games champion Jonatan Christie of Indonesia in the quarters. The scoreline 24-22, 21-14 conveyed the story of how each point especially in the first game, had been fought for. After the match was won, a relieved, overcome by goosebumps Praneeth lay sprawled on the court, his emotions getting the better of him. Before that the world number 19 had downed the dangerous Anthony Ginting, also of Indonesia, who is ranked 11 places above him.
The going near the summit will get tougher now. Praneeth next meets World number one Kento Momota. The head to head record says it is 3-2 in Momota’s favour, the last win for the Japanese coming on home turf at the Japan open semi-final. But Momota would ignore Praneeth’s form – he is yet to drop a game in this championship – at his own peril. The pressure will actually be on Momota as he is the favorite to win the title. Not surprising because he is the defending champion and also won the All-England title this year.
What would Praneeth bank on when he takes on World number one Momota in the semis? Knowing him, he will dip into some of the best moments from his past. Like how he defeated the then World number 2 Lee Chong Wei, one of the best players in the business in the first round of the All-England championship in 2016. The trick would be keep it tight with the crafty net game the 2015 National champion is known for and make Momota fight for each point.
“I realised that when the score was 15-15, he was shaky. So you push and succeed,” Praneeth had told me about his match against Wei. The scoreline then was 24-22, 22-20, a commentary on what a fight it had been.
His gurus at the academy have always recognised the hunger quotient in Praneeth. Siyadath, a coach at the Academy had told me, “Sai Praneeth is a workhorse. You make him play on the badminton court the entire day, he will not say No.”
That urge to put in that extra effort comes from the vibes Praneeth gets from people around him.
“My friends look at me with lot of admiration. The fact that I represent India is a high,” Praneeth said.
( T S Sudhir is a badminton enthusiast and the author of Saina Nehwal’s biography, published in 2012)