Sai Praneeth has a chance to become the new Olympic hero of the country in the sport of badminton. So with the doubles pair in Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty. Former stalwarts, Vimal Kumar and Sanjay Sharma are hopeful of both Praneeth and Reddy and Shetty giving a good account of themselves in Tokyo.
With Kidambi Srikanth missing the Tokyo Olympic cut in the men’s singles competition, the Pullela Gopichand trained 28-year-old Praneeth from Hyderabad, currently ranked World No.15, will be India’s sole representative in the men’s singles campaign. Two years ago he won the bronze medal at the BWF World Championship in Basel, a feat that was on par with Padukone’s bronze winning feat at Copenhagen 36 years ago.
While the cancellation of the Malaysian Open and Singapore Open, turned out be a setback for Srikanth and Saina Nehwal, both of whom were keen to make an eleventh hour attempt to book their passsage to Tokyo, Praneeth lost the opportunity to get some valuable match practice under his belt before his Olympic debut.
Praneeth has played 352 singles matches in the professional circuit and has won 219, including against a few top notch players. More recently, he played against Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen in the All England round of 16 and lost a 52-minute three setter. He has played close to 70 singles matches since 2017; but he has been far from consistent, although he won the bronze at the Total BWF World Championship, losing to the Japanese top gun, Kento Momota in the semi-finals. In 2019, he consistently lost to Momoto, Denmark’s Anders Antonsen, Indonesian Anthony Ginting and China’s SHI Yu Qi.
For the Olympics, he has been training under the watchful eyes of Gopichand and Indonesian coach Agus Dwi Santo in Hyderabad. Former India player and coach, Sharma who has seen Praneeth in action believes that the lone Indian entry could be the dark horse. “He has a lot of deception. He is like Chetan Anand; every stroke of his was a deception. Once Han Jian (Chinese legend) told me that Chetan fooled him playing strokes. Sai Praneeth has got a naturally deceptive game, and I have seen shades of Chetan in him. Maybe he is more controlled than Chetan, who was not very fit and relied on his strokes. If he (Praneeth) can match the Danes and Japanese on the fitness count, then he has a chance for a medal. As a coach, I am hoping for the best results from him. Prakash (Padokone) was deceptive and he had follow up strokes, but Praneeth plays, on occasions, rash strokes. But he is a superb player."
Fomer national champion, a top 20 player in the world in his time, Olympian and who has been with the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy from 1994, Vimal Kumar believes that not being in the limelight could help Praneeth. “When the focus is not on you, you tend to do well. I would compare him with the Sindhu of 2016; there were no expectations from her at Rio. Same with Praneeth now. The focus was on Saina at Rio, but it was Sindhu who quietly did her job."
Vimal Kumar touched upon the draw and fitness factors saying: “I would like to see the draw. Then only clarity will emerge. Hope he doesn’t run into players like Kento Momoto etc. in the first round. Fitness has always been his problem area. He is a very skilful player. If the draw is good, he can squeeze in. We waited for 36 years to get a World Championship medal; Praneeth winning the bronze in 2019 after Prakash in 1983. We are always desperate to win a medal. It’s better to be the underdog."
India’s doubles hopes rest on the brilliant pair in Reddy and Shetty, who has been training under former singles and doubles champion Uday Pawar for many years. On their prospects, Vimal Kumar said: “They are in with a good chance (of a podium finish). They have beaten the best combinations in the world. That’s a plus factor. They can also play a lot more freely, because there are not much expectations from them. We can say that they can win a medal, but the focus is not on them. I would like to see the draw. The initial round is very important; there is an opportunity to get straightaway into the quarter - finals. Once you win the quarters, then you are playing for a medal. These two have won Super Series events."
Reddy and Shetty have played close to a hundred matches, gained experience and created history by winning a Super 500 series final in Thailand in 2019. “These two have been playing for six years, starting from the Challenge events. Satwik and Chirag have grabbed the chances and have asserted themselves in competitions. They have made their mark. Compared to the other pairs, these two have made use of the opportunities."
“The only drawback I see is that, whereas the Danish and Japanese are playing in their internal competitions, India could not do so. Satwik and Chirag have a good coach to assist them, but they needed to play matches and compete, which could not be possible because of the circumstances."
The exciting doubles pair is training under a Champion player like Mathias Boe. “They wanted Boe. They are quite happy with him because they have interacted with him a lot during the PBL. They have a lot of respect for him. He has played at the highest level. He is an Olympic medal winner. Boe has got into coaching recently, and so the interactions is what will help the Indian pair, especially the tactics part of it. I can see only positives out of this."
Vimal Kumar concluded his observations saying: " Getting a medal at the Olympics is a lot easier than at the Super series events. Entries are restricted, and not all the best players are there in the competition at the Olympics."
Sharma who is recovering from a year-long ailment relating to Cavernoma and is writing a book about his surgery and rehabilitation has not taken his mind off from the game.
“I get a feeling that these boys will do well. Both of them are very aggressive. Especially Satwik; he is a monster at the backcourt, the way he moves around and smashes. They just have to have luck on their side. I don’t know about their present match sharpness status, but my gut instinct is that they can do very well because of their sheer aggression. Chirag in the front court is quite agile."