2022 Arjuna Awardee badminton player HS Prannoy. (Photo: Badminton Photo/Twitter)
The year-end HSBC BWF World Tour Finals may not really be the showcase for India's growing strength in the sport of badminton, but it will, at least, pin the spotlight on one player.
HS Prannoy, ranked No. 3 currently in men's singles, is the only Indian in the draw for the Finals in which the top eight ranked players are invited in singles (men and women), doubles and mixed doubles. The event, shifted hastily to Bangkok from Guangzhou, China, and pushed forward by a week to be held from December 7 to 11, leaves just a sliver of hope for Indian badminton to end the year on a high. The icing on the cake that the Finals could provide would only add to the significant gains made in the sport for India, especially with the Thomas Cup win.
Other players who consistently hung around the top rankings have fallen out of the qualification zone — Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen would have been the other automatic choices to accompany Prannoy. PV Sindhu would have qualified for the event but has withdrawn owing to an injury. The rising doubles duo of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy also would have to wait to play in these Finals for at least another year.
While Prannoy has not won a World Tour event this season, he has the ability to pull off big upsets on a major stage and has a penchant for dramatic performances that make him a player to fear. Prannoy can at best be considered a dark horse in a draw that has several accomplished and consistent performers, like the overwhelming favourite Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, Chinese Taipei's Chou Tien Chen, Jonatan Christie of Indonesia and Singaporean Loh Kean Yew.
Prannoy, also the only singles player nominated for Badminton World Federation’s (BWF's) "most improved player of the year" award that will be handed out during the World Tour Finals, has had a consistent 2022, which promised much but failed to deliver in the final stages. From the beginning of the year till September, he made it to the quarterfinals of 10 out of 13 tournaments he participated in. This includes one final, the Swiss Open in March, in which he lost to Christie. Prannoy lost thrice to Sen, though managed to beat him in the World Championships pre-quarterfinals and in the first round of the Indonesia Open.
There were other significant wins, including one over the world No. 7 Anthony Ginting of Indonesia at the Swiss Open, twice over Chou Tien Chen in the Malaysia and Singapore Opens and the eighth ranked Yew in the Japan Open. A run to the last stages of the World Tour Finals next week would not be a huge surprise for Prannoy, given these accomplishments.
But his biggest contribution this year was in inspiring India's maiden triumph at the Thomas Cup team event — their first title in the 73-year history of the competition. Playing the last singles match in every tie, Prannoy was unbeaten in three round robin group matches and in the two elimination rounds. This included the win over Rasmus Gemke of Denmark in the semi-final when the teams were tied 2-2 and the final result rested on the last match of Prannoy's. He slipped in the first game of the match and had to take a medical time out to deal with the injury, but battled on to clinch the contest and take India into the final.
As one of the senior players in the squad, besides Srikanth, Prannoy's role was not just to win his matches but also to guide the younger lot through the competition, especially after a demoralising loss to Chinese Taipei. If the team finally won the crown, then there's much credit due to Srikanth and Prannoy's leadership skills.
Prannoy continued his good form with the racquet after the Thomas Cup too, getting into the semi-final of the Indonesia Open in June and the Malaysia Masters in July before a quarter-final exit at the World Championships in August, a tournament in which he had made the quarters the previous year as well.
Prannoy credits some of his improvements to a company that he has been working with for strength, conditioning and improving mental strength. "I now feel much more focused throughout the game. The results are probably 10 per cent better than what I had from last September, so there's a lot of scope. It works. People will generally neglect this side of the game but I think it's really important," he told the BWF website in August. In his maiden World Finals starting Wednesday, if the 30-year-old Prannoy could consistently put his best foot forward till the end, it would be an apt culmination to a year of near-misses.
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