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Sai Praneeth interview: “Longer training sessions have been the key to my confidence”

609   //    19 Aug 2017, 08:30 IST

B. Sai Prane
India's B. Sai Praneeth is among the world's top 20 badminton players

World No. 19 B. Sai Praneeth was minutes away from catching his flight to Glasgow for the World Championships which begins on August 21 when Sportskeeda caught up with him. With the 25-year-old in the queue for security at the airport at the time, the ace shuttler was indeed in a rush.

But ask him whether he has butterflies in his stomach ahead of his big debut at the prestigious global event where the crème de la crème of the badminton world will be playing and the reply comes clear and distinct.

“I am not feeling any pressure. I am just so excited to play the tournament. I am treating it just as any other Superseries tournament,” the excitement clearly palpable in his voice.

And why shouldn’t he be? In the last few months, the baby-faced assassin has transformed himself into a world beater. A prodigious junior, he won the bronze at the World Junior Championships in 2010, beating none other than the Rio Olympic bronze medallist Viktor Axelsen.

For someone who had long been touted as a natural talent and to whom winning came easy as a teen, it was a rude shock in the senior circuit. The transition proved to be indeed arduous and at times, painful.

Sai was more known for his huge upsets here and there but was never one who could string together a few of them consistently and convert them into elite tournament victories. His resume showed only the 2016 Canada Open Grand Prix as his sole triumph in the higher level, which naturally does no justice to the abundant talent that he possesses.

Handoyo instills confidence

Enter the new Indonesian coach, Mulyo Handoyo, and everything changed for Sai Praneeth.

Handoyo, the former mentor of the erstwhile World No. 1 Taufik Hidayat has been the talisman for the Indian men’s singles brigade. His expertise and vast experience have been what brought about the revolution, resulting in six men’s singles titles in the Grand Prix Gold level and above.

Sai too concurred that it has indeed been Handoyo who has been instrumental in this monumental success of Indian badminton. Tweaking the training sessions with a sharp focus on fitness has brought rich dividends.

“The new coach has changed a lot of programmes like we have longer training sessions now. Because of that, everybody became so fit. He is always pushing, pushing, pushing in all our training sessions, so that has definitely brought confidence.

That has been the key to the change in Indian men’s singles.”

Naturally, the players are lasting the distance. There is no stutter or stumble even if it is a physical duel.

Sai’s back-to-back wins at the Singapore Open Superseries and the Thailand Open Grand Prix Gold validate this and so do Srikanth’s wins at the Indonesia Open Superseries Premier and the Australian Open Superseries in consecutive weeks.

Healthy rivalry among training partners

All of these wins have come from the batch that trains at the Pullela Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad. Seeing your training partners winning tournaments around the world is equally important to create some healthy rivalry and competition among the inmates.

Sai, who now dreams of qualifying for the World Superseries Finals, agrees. All the wins in the past few months have indirectly influenced the training sessions and motivated the players to deliver their best which, in turn, is getting reflected in their performances at the various tournaments.

“Because you all practise together, seeing them winning is a huge source of motivation for all the players and all the juniors as well. We get more motivated to practise and fight well in the practise sessions.”

These training sessions have been of prime importance to Handoyo and Gopichand which is why the World Championships-bound singles shuttlers from the academy did not play internationally since June’s Australian Open Superseries.

The six week-training block was needed to even out any errors in their games and to infuse them with the conviction that they are ready to take on the world.

“Preparations went on well. We had a good six weeks of training and we are all ready for the World Championships.”

But complacency cannot creep in. Talking about his draw, Sai exercised caution. The 15th seed does have the World No. 6 Chou Tien Chen and the third ranked Victor Axelsen as his potential third round and quarter-final opponents respectively.

His eyes are, however, firmly fixed on only one name for the moment - World No. 44 Wei Nan, who is his first round opponent.

“I do have a tough draw right from the first round. I just hope to go there and give my best.”

He knows where to purge all his excitement in favour of a calm and mature approach.

Expectations don't create pressure

And that shines through in his voice even when he speaks of the unavoidable, rising expectations from the numerous badminton aficionados of the country.

Winning does bring its fair share of perils. There’s a burden heaped on the player’s shoulders from everyone who expect him to keep continuing the trend and if he fails, the criticism arrives in hordes.

Sai admitted he has conditioned himself to be immune to it all.

“That is always there. If you just keep thinking about that, you cannot perform well and the pressure increases more. I just avoid it all and just focus on my game and try to give my best. It’s not that if you lose one tournament, you are at the end or your performance has gone down.

There are many tournaments. Sometimes, we may be unlucky or sometimes, we may be lucky. It does not mean that if I Iose in the first round or in the second round at the World Championships, it is the end of my career.”

With all the talk about the Indians dominating the badminton circuit, the holy trinity of men’s singles - Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long, has completely retreated into their shadows. The Malaysian did capture his fourth All England Championships crown in March but since then, the once-invincible greats have been drowned by the Indian deluge.

Does it confirm the end of their ruthless dominance?

Sai vehemently replied it was not the case.

“I don’t think it is the end of the dominance of the Chinese and Lee Chong Wei. They are completely different in the big events like the World Championships. In the Superseries circuit this year, Lee Chong Wei won the All England and he has not played many tournaments and he will be back in the World Championships.

So when they don’t perform in these big events, then only we can say it is their end. They have enough Superseries titles, so they have all been focussing on the big events like the World Championships.

When they lose this also, then we can say that their dominance has weakened. But if they win this again, we cannot really think of anything else,” Sai signs off.

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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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