In the form of his life, badminton star Prannoy speaks to Lounge about the long, hard road to preparing for the Asian Games
2023 has been studded with many landmark accomplishments for H.S. Prannoy. In May, he won his first World Tour title after annexing the Malaysia Masters. He then picked up his first medal at the World Championships in August, accounting for two former world champions, Loh Kean Yew and Viktor Axelsen, en route the bronze. Earlier this month, he soared to a career high ranking of World No. 6, ready to lead the charge as the highest ranked Indian at the Asian Games in Hangzhou. The Asian Games badminton events begin on 28 September.
It’s been an uphill battle to get to where he is today and there’s a certain hunger to achieve more, though it’s unlikely that his calm demeanour will give anything away. It’s a far cry from how he was placed at the previous edition of the Asian Games in 2018. At the time, his was still an underdog story, having only just broken into the world top-10 for the first time in his career. The results didn’t go his way, but it’s a tournament he has fond memories of.
“My individual performance in the singles was really ordinary. But we had a good chance in the team event. We were drawn to play Indonesia in the quarterfinal and missed the medal by a whisker,” Prannoy, 31, says. “I remember beating Jonatan Christie in the second singles tie. It was electric to play the Indonesians at home in Istora Senayan,” he adds.
A lot can happen over five years. Right after the 2018 Asian Games, Prannoy experienced a slump due to health issues and dropped outside the top-30. By the time he found his groove again, Covid-19 struck. There was no badminton for over a year, but the enforced break brought a sense of relief.
“It gave me a little bit of confidence to know that everyone would have to start building from scratch again. I spent most of 2021 working my way back and a lot of things have gone in the right direction since then,” he says.
Last year, Prannoy reached the quarterfinal stage of ten tournaments, while also making the World Tour Finals. In May 2022, he played two epic deciders against Malaysia and Denmark that helped India to their first Thomas Cup title. He was at ease on the court, delighted to have found his touch and having regained his confidence. There was also relief in the fact that the body was holding up.
It was the result of his own resolve and the efforts of an entire team working around him. The lack of silverware in singles was hardly discouraging, for Prannoy knew how the last few years had panned out.
“Unfortunately for badminton, it seems like winning medals is easy. The bar has been set very high by folks like Saina, Sindhu and Srikanth, who are all exceptional athletes. If you look at other sports, making a quarterfinal or semi-final is big news because few have been able to do it. But since we managed to achieve that around 7-8 years ago in badminton, people expect medals all the time,” Prannoy says.
“Playing Super Series events is like playing a Grand Slam in tennis every week where you’re up against the top-20 players of the world. So I was very happy with the progress I had made. If I could make the quarterfinal stage, I knew I could figure out a way to get to the final. I just had to be patient,” he adds.
Over time, the training evolved to suit Prannoy’s needs. He sat down with his coaches, trainers and physios to understand when the sessions could be loaded and where they needed to ease off. From trying to give his 100% each time he stepped out on court, Prannoy arrived at the realisation that there would be times when he would be unable to perform at his peak. And that it was fine. The point was to be consistent, do the small things right and stick to the schedule instead of backing off, while allowing the body to recover in time to hit optimal levels once again.
Prannoy also took on psychology sessions with the team at the performance and health intelligence company Behavioural Foresight, to tackle situations that he had been uncomfortable with in the past. Before the start of the 2023 season, he started working with 2014 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist, R.M.V. Gurusai Dutt. On the court, Dutt was critical to Prannoy’s success, adding variety to his game, while off it, Dutt provided the emotional support of an old buddy.
“Guru is somebody who used to outsmart opponents on the court and he’s brought the same quality to my game – to think outside the box. With him and Gopi bhaiya on board, the quality of sessions have been really high. I’ve been constantly trying to add new shots to my game, knowing that scoring just one point through them is going to be a game changer. And since we’ve played together on the circuit, Guru is someone I can completely open up to, which is really nice,” Prannoy says.
During the first three months of 2023, Prannoy struggled to find his rhythm. But the team had already decided to focus on long term goals instead of the next tournament. They evaluated the losses and worked on the things that needed fine-tuning.
With the Malaysia Masters title, the team had cracked the code. More importantly, Prannoy had endured epic battles, with two of the matches lasting over 90 minutes. After finishing runners-up at the Australian Open in August, Prannoy put on another stellar performance at the World Championships, going down in the semis to eventual champion, Kunlavut Vitidsarn, in three games.
“We are simply working with a plan that ensures I’ll be in good shape physically for the next 2-3 years. This understanding has been critical and has made a huge difference,” he says.
The Asian Games is another pitstop on that journey and an integral part of his goals. He wants to continue his process-oriented approach, hoping to return with an individual medal for his efforts. For now though, he is looking forward to the team event that precedes the singles.
“It’s always fun to be part of a team since we don’t get to play together very often. This team is very similar to the Thomas Cup one and I’m really excited to see how we fare,” he says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.