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Commonwealth Games 2018: "CWG, Asiad schedules make it tougher for Asian shuttlers," says HS Prannoy

FEATURED COLUMNIST
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715   //    26 Mar 2018, 19:36 IST

hs prannoy
HS Prannoy

HS Prannoy really, really loves the All England Open. His respect and admiration for the world’s oldest badminton tournament oozes from his words once he gets to talk about it.

Naturally, getting a career-best result at his favourite event in four attempts, especially after coming back from a break, is bound to elevate his confidence level. And he agrees.

“I am really happy that I am back on court and I am able to push through a couple of matches. That’s what is much more important right now,” says the World No. 12 shuttler in an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda.

Prannoy is referring to the tough start to the season. Having reached a couple of Superseries semi-finals, he broke into the top 10 of the world rankings for the first time in 2017 -- making it the best year of his career so far. On the domestic front, he beat the inexorable Kidambi Srikanth to taste National Senior Championships glory for the first time.

Right when he was looking to ride on that momentum into the new year, warts on his feet derailed him in the first two months of 2018. He was forced to appear at the India Open only for the sake of conforming to the new rules implemented by the Badminton World Federation (BWF), which require the top-15 players to play a minimum of 12 events.

The prestigious Birmingham tournament was thus essentially his first outing of the season. He finished as the best Indian performer in men’s singles, bowing out in a narrow defeat in the quarter-finals.

The performance was a good way to gauge his recovery levels after the hiatus as much as it served as a source of motivation ahead of the Commonwealth Games.

“The All England performance was a really good motivation for me. Had I lost in the first round, there would have been lots of doubts and confusions.

“But after playing a few matches, you know a lot of things about your game for which you need to start training. That’s what is good about playing one big event. I can focus on those areas now.”

Prannoy has always been one to underline the importance of a break for every top shuttler. A break not only gives one some much-needed time to mentally freshen up, but it also makes him hungrier.

The absence from the competition for a few months made him crave for the big stage again. Prannoy admittedly wasn’t at his 100% fitness going into the All England Open, but mentally he was right up there.

“I have always done better after a big break,” explains Prannoy. “After a break, you are really mentally fresh. You really want to go out there and perform. That feeling is altogether different. When you are training for 5-6 months and playing tournaments for a long time, fatigue builds up.

“So I really wanted to go out there just for the tournament. I wasn’t really considering how well I would be able to play. I just wanted to enjoy the atmosphere.”

Gopichand’s valuable advice

hs prannoy pullela gopichand saina nehwal
Prannoy with Saina Nehwal and Pullela Gopichand after winning the 2017 Senior National Championships

However, things appeared to be very different when he started his campaign. His rustiness hit him hard as the eighth seeded Chou Tien Chen bludgeoned him to a 21-9 submission. The Chinese Taipei ace had conquered the German Open a week earlier and was high on confidence. In contrast, the Kerala shuttler was searching for his first win of the year.

That’s when the ever-dependable Pullela Gopichand stepped in. Nobody better than the 2001 champion knows how to lift a player’s morale at this event.

His simple words, “Just try to feel the atmosphere,” changed the complexion of the match.

Prannoy shrugged off the pressure, freed himself up and found himself enjoying the match again.

“Those kinds of things you tend to forget at times. When someone suddenly reminds you about that, it really changes you and makes you much more aware of what’s happening. Then you stop thinking about winning or losing.

After that first round, I was feeling very good on court. I wasn’t having any pain. I just wanted to go out there and play in front of that big crowd.”

Despite the euphoria, there was a tinge of disappointment in his voice for missing out on a priceless opportunity of taking on the great Lin Dan in the semi-finals. In the last one year, he has changed his approach towards the sport.

Earlier, he would bother too much about the outcome. Now he makes an effort not to think about it and instead concentrate on the enjoyment factor. But there are times, when a tiny bit of thought about the final result does indeed creep in and interrupts his progress.

Prannoy admits it is a long process and one can only learn through mistakes.

“That approach has changed me in the last one year, I would say. Wherever I have lost, I think I had started thinking about winning….like I was thinking a bit about the semi-finals during the quarter-final match at the All England Open.

“That really gets to you sometimes. In Indonesia also, I had five-six match points and I was already thinking about the next match.

“Those kinds of things you experience, you learn and try to get better at in the next match.”

All England Open means more than the Olympics

Prannoy never hides the fact that he is big fan of the aura, the conditions, the level of competition and the quality of play at the All England Open. Calling it ‘special’, he says that as a young shuttler growing up, this was the tournament that he always dreamt of playing in. Even the Olympics don’t matter to him as much as the British tournament does.

Surprising as it might seem, the 25-year-old has his own reasons to explain why he feels so.

“I rate the All England Open trophy higher than an Olympic medal, which would surprise many. I have my own reasons. From the first round, you have to be on your toes and you are playing the top 30 in the world.

“Winning a title there is really tough because of the atmosphere and the court conditions. The Olympics comes once in four years and half of the good players don’t even qualify for that. The competition really starts from the quarter-finals.

“But at the All England, you have to grind out each win from the first round. I think you have a little bit of leverage at the Olympics because opponents might still not be that great in the first two rounds.

“The All England Open has been one tournament that I have dreamt about from my childhood, but I have never dreamt about the Olympics. The atmosphere is so electrifying at the All England and the way they get you on the court are completely different. Maybe that’s why I always feel that All England is special.”

Mulyo’s departure has done no harm

Mulyo Handoyo’s presence last year brought about a revolution in men’s singles. Srikanth, Sai Praneeth and Prannoy himself bore the evidence of it. The veteran Indonesian’s ability to manage the top players and inspire them to success has been praiseworthy.

However, Handoyo severed his ties at the end of last year and joined the Singapore Badminton Association (SBA) in January. It was speculated that the loss could have a massive effect on Indian badminton, especially with two multisporting events scheduled this year.

Prannoy vehemently denies it. Gopichand knows the players inside out and is more charged up than ever, he insists.

“We have been with Gopi Sir for the last 8-10 years. Now he is back on track and he is really charged up. I don’t see anything falling apart, in fact things are getting better I would say. He is really flexible according to the players’ physical condition.”

Srikanth needs time to find that spark

Kidambi Srikanth was in the running for the World No. 1 spot at the All England Open and even his draw looked favourable enough to facilitate his run. Much to the dismay of Indian fans, the India No. 1 could not push past Huang Yuxiang in the second round even after having multiple match points.

The result triggered criticism on social media as fans found it difficult to come to terms with his early loss after seeing him capture four Superseries titles in 2017.

Having been a friend and a training partner to Srikanth, Prannoy knows the World No. 2 thoroughly. He is unperturbed by Srikanth’s temporary blip in form. He brushed it off as no ‘big issue’ and believes that the Guntur-born ace just needs one very close match, à la 2017 Singapore Open.

“Last year also, he was going through this same kind of a patch at the India Open and then lost in the first round of the All England Open. Then he came to Singapore, where he had a lucky pre-quarter-final I would say.

“He was down 20-16 and he went on to win it 22-20. That one match just entirely changed his flow of run. I don’t see this form as a big issue for anyone. I think people are just criticizing because he gets to semis and finals of each tournament.

“I don’t know why people have started to comment very negatively. All players are equally good like Brice or Huang. Probably Srikanth could not get his A-game out that day because of the pressure or maybe because of so many expectations around him. Even he had so many expectations from himself when he went to All England.

“Some days it just doesn’t work. I think it’s a matter of time. Probably in the next couple of tournaments, one really close match can make everything fall into place and even he knows that. He needs to be patient. The wins will come.”

BWF should learn from tennis

The new BWF rules have been condemned by every top player. Prannoy too is no exception. He was subjected to unnecessary discomfiture and pain as he had to play a round at the India Open.

Being a victim of the impractical new system, Prannoy elaborated how taxing and even harmful the schedule could be especially for those players representing Asian nations.

“The schedule is pretty taxing for the top players with the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games packed in between the major tournaments. Probably for a European guy it is slightly easier. They can push through for the next three months.

“As an Asian, we don’t have that much gap in between. We don’t know when to train also. We came back from the All England Open and the next day we started training for the Commonwealth Games. We don’t have the liberty to train at 60-70% right after coming back from a tournament. We have to be at 100% all the time.

There are a lot of chances of getting injured because we are directly going to 100% training which the body sometimes doesn’t take.”

Better marketing is the need of the hour. For a sport to grow and expand all over the world, pumping in more money is imperative.

Trying to speed up an already fast game will come to no use unless it is packaged well. Citing the example of tennis, he pointed out how people can stay glued to the television screen even for 5 hours for just one tennis match.

The length of a match is absolutely not an issue as has been validated by the 110-minute long PV Sindhu vs Nozomi Okuhara World Championships marathon final, which had fans raving about it all over the world. That is just one of many highly exciting badminton matches that can get everybody’s attention.

Unfortunately, the BWF is more adamant focussing on trivial issues currently and, as a result, the sport misses out on growing further.

“Anyone can sit and watch tennis for 5 hours. But nobody can sit and watch badminton for 5 hours and that too one quarter-final day for 5 hours?

“It depends on how you market a sport. If you don’t put in money, it will obviously remain a smaller sport. People are watching so much tennis because they have made it interesting.

“There are tons of badminton matches where every point is a thriller and you don’t feel like getting up. The problem is that the association is not ready to pump in money and make it a grand scale event. Money is what makes it bigger. The amount of money in tennis is huge.

“If you can’t do that, you can’t expect all these small changes to bring about a big change.”

He also fully supported Srikanth’s statement that the umpiring at the All England Open was ridiculous. The new service rule, which states that the shuttle should not exceed 1.15m from the surface at the point of release, is not transparent at all.

Worst of all, the umpires themselves are struggling to cope with the changes and are not well-versed in the new rules, putting players in a spot of bother.

“Srikanth served the same way in the second round like he did in the first. But in the second round, he started getting faults. Even Gopi Sir started shouting at the umpire. He was called fault in the next two sets.

“It is indeed ridiculous. Rules are dicey and are just not transparent at the moment,” he signs off, making it very clear that if the BWF doesn’t listen to the players, badminton is all set to suffer.

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FEATURED COLUMNIST
A freelance journalist based in Kolkata who is a diehard Rafael Nadal fan. She is also extremely passionate about India’s progress in sports and hopes to throw light on India’s unsung sports heroes through her articles. When not screaming her lungs out in support of her favourite sports stars, she can be seen reading, watching movies or immersed in planning her next travel destination!
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