From a perpetual underachiever to being the most consistent Indian men's singles shuttler of 2019, Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth has come a long way.
The 27-year-old has attributed this transformation to his much-improved fitness, on which he had been working hard for a long time. It all bore fruit this year as the Hyderabad badminton ace was able to play a full season and show his grit and tenacity against some of the best shuttlers in the world.
Ever since Sai won a bronze at the World Junior Championships in 2010, he had been touted as the next big hope for Indian badminton. However, even though he did display his immense talent by causing several upsets, a medal at an elite tournament always eluded him until this year.
Sai's performance at the 2019 World Championships was the biggest example of how much potential he always had in him.
He shunned all sorts of doubt and hesitation and played freely. By oozing confidence and attacking at will, Sai managed to upset the likes of top-10 players, Jonatan Christie and Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, in straight games, to secure a prized bronze medal from the high-profile event.
What was even more admirable was the fact that the Pullela Gopichand protege had lost his previous meetings to both the Indonesian shuttlers, but he did not let that bother him. When Sai took the court against them in Basel, he was a man on a mission.
Hungry and ruthless, he struck like a wounded tiger and created history in the process. The bronze that he won was India's first men's singles medal in 36 years since Prakash Padukone's 1983 bronze.
Even though it was the crowning glory of Sai Praneeth's season, the foundation of that success had been built months before. It was at the Swiss Open in March that Sai exhibited his capabilities to the fullest extent.
Having accounted for reigning Olympic champion Chen Long and compatriot, Sameer Verma among others, Sai snatched the first game against the-then BWF World Tour Finals champion Shi Yuqi. The Chinese ultimately did come back to beat Sai and take the title but it was a good enough indication of what was to come for him for the rest of the season.
Sai repeated his win over Sameer in a gruelling three-game match at the India Open. In the quarter-finals, he gave his all against former World No. 1 Kidambi Srikanth only to bow out narrowly 23-21, 11-21, 19-21 in the quarter-finals. The loss crushed him mentally and it took him a few weeks to recover from it and show that same fighting spirit at top-level tournaments.
Sai came into his own at the Japan Open, a Super 750 event, in July. He ended as the best-performing Indian and made it to the semi-finals, losing to World No. 1 Kento Momota. A hectic schedule of three consecutive weeks could not deter Sai and he backed up the Japan Open display with a run to the quarter-finals of the Thailand Open the very next week.
A refreshed and rejuvenated Sai then embarked on his World Championships journey in Basel. Sai refused to rest on his laurels and carried that momentum into the China Open, a Super 1000 tournament and one of the major events on the badminton calendar. A couple of wins set up a showdown with Ginting, where the Indian once again showed his big-match temperament before eventually succumbing in three tight games.
He could not make it to the quarter-finals of any of the last four events of the 2019 season but did definitely leave an indelible mark with a couple of notable victories. A win against the legendary Lin Dan at the Denmark Open and a fighting three-game defeat of Tommy Sugiarto at the Fuzhou China Open further underlined his grit and determination.
Ranking-wise, the year will be unforgettable as his exploits were rewarded with a place in the world's top 10 for the very first time in his career. Sai finished his career-best season at the 11th place in the BWF World Rankings and it would be interesting to see if he can carry this form into the next season with a highly-coveted Olympic berth at stake.