Not so long ago, the immense talent of HS Prannoy was thought to be a relic of bygone days.
Before he came into his career-defining season of 2023, he was just badminton’s near-man; a BWF World Tour title was still out of his reach.
Not so long back, the world no. 8 Indian was languishing at no. 33 (in 2021). But he has worked his way back up to claim the crown of India’s leading men’s singles player, leaving Lakshya Sen and Kidambi Srikanth way behind.
His willingness to fight through agonising pain had always met with a hellish wait for his first title in the last six years.
But Prannoy did not give up despite his body taking the wrong turn in his late 30s and sustaining the heartache of defeats, some from very close quarters. The one individual title he craved continued to elude him.
In his first final in five years at the Swiss Open in 2022, he was hammered by Jonathan Christie in straight games.
But Prannoy was not bogged down by the sufferings. He always put a smile on his face and kept fighting with tremendous vigour and zeal. Whenever he stepped on the court, he looked fresh and hungry for success. But Prannoy had to make merry with two semifinal finishes since.
At the Indonesia Open Super 1000, he looked so solid and aggressive that he won all matches till the quarterfinals in straight games but went down in the semifinals. At Malaysia Masters, he had to follow a similar course; luck did not favour him.
But hope is powerful, and never in his obscure career, Prannoy lose hope. And it paid the dividends. Prannoy was a champion again at Malaysia Masters, six years on from his last triumph at the 2017 US Open.
What a year he has had ever since!
Prannoy’s penchant for playing matches long has now become a well-attested fact on the World Tour by the end of the year.
At his maiden World Tour title-winning performance at Malaysia Masters in May, Prannoy brought to heel a spirited fightback from Weng Hong Yang, a Chinese player who is seven years younger than the Indian shuttler, in a 93-minute final.
On his way up to the finale, he also saw off sixth seed Chou Tien Chen, All England Open champion Li Shi Feng and Japanese star Kenta Nishimoto.
Prannoy’s steely resolve is the prime feature of his mental makeup. He is a fighter who loves to make his opponent initiate attacks, but he would make sure that he has the final shot in the match.
At Malaysia Masters, displaying his ability to stay firm in the game till the very last serve, Prannoy emerged the winner. All his matches at the event were three-gamers; he spent an average of 79 minutes on the court.
After the match, Prannoy stood tall on the podium of the Axiata Arena, with the yellow metal draped around his neck, and he soaked in all the cheering he deserved from the cheerful spectators.
He would find himself in the middle of another series of marathon matches the following week at the Australian Open. Prannoy, however, was unbothered by the challenge; he stayed in contention for the title till the very last game, but Hong Yang would have the last laugh on the occasion surviving an onslaught by Prannoy in a 93-minute heart-wrenching thriller. On average, Prannoy spent over 68 minutes on the court in Sydney, including three three-gamers till the quarterfinals, showing his game longevity.
It is extraordinary that one player could savour such sapping matches in two tournaments in a row, yet he was not feeling worn out. The pursuit of excellence and glory are the ultimate attributes of Prannoy’s late ascent.
And that’s what unfolded in 2023, with the Indian shuttler stepping up a level in every match, displaying his defensively solid and attackingly menacing game that saw him see off the most consistent player of the time, Viktor Axelsen, the world no. 1, in front of his own fans in the semifinals of the World Championships in Copenhagen. By denying Axelsen, who nearly clean swept the season for the second year in a row, a three-piece, Prannoy added another feather to his career by claiming the bronze medal at the Worlds.
Prannoy ended the year on a high by winning Asian Games bronze and scripting history as he ended India’s 41-year-long wait for a second medal at the Games in the men’s singles category.
Despite being accompanied by excruciating back pain throughout the Asiad, Prannoy delivered the gong. This feat came at a cost, however. The injury would force him to cut short his season at the halfway mark in October.
Prannoy is no stranger to injuries and bad health, but his resolve helps him overcome these hurdles. In the past, he had to deal with gastroesophageal reflux disease at the 2018 World Championships, Covid-19 infection in 2021, and a twisted ankle in India’s semifinal win over Denmark at the Thomas Cup.
The next time when he reemerges from Kuala Lumpur’s Axiata Arena at the Malasyia Open in January, there will be high hopes that Prannoy will retain his composure and shine bright as India’s biggest hope in men’s singles in an Olympic year.