Haseena Sunil Kumar Prannoy, popularly known as HS Prannoy, gifted India a place in the finals of the 2022 Thomas cup campaign. A dream of every badminton playing country has been to bring the fabled cup to their nation. Every shuttler worth his salt lives for the day when he can put his arms around the magnificent trophy. Prannoy was no exception. But before we go over to his match and how India reached the finals, let us see how the drama unfolded, and also how we have fared against the Great Danes historically.
India had defeated Denmark only once in the Thomas Cup and that was way back in 1952 which was the second edition of the fabled event. We prevailed over the Danes 6-3. The event was held in Singapore, which at that time was part of Malaysia.
But the Danes found a way to counter our beguiling wristy game and defeated us from 1955 onwards. In that year we got drubbed 6-3 and that had been the story ever since whenever India played Denmark.
This includes the 1979 edition which was the last time that best of Nine matches was played. I was lucky enough to be part of the Indian team which defeated Malaysia 5-4 to enter the semifinals only to lose to the Danes 2-7.
India wanted to break the Danish jinx and move on forward. But the former world and current Olympic champion Viktor Axelson had other ideas on his mind. He was simply devastating today against Lakshya Sen. The Indian had lost all previous encounters to the 6 ft,4 inches tall Dane except for that remarkable victory in the semifinals of the German Open in March this year where a gritty display from Sen had defeated the genius of Denmark.
Like a music conductor, Viktor made Lakashya dance to his tunes, not allowing the Indian to settle down or play into any rhythm. Viktor won 21-13/ 21-13 in 42 minutes. No doubt there were huge rallies but it was always Lakshya who was diving all over the court desperately trying to reach the steep half smashes of Viktor. Delivered from a height of almost 15 feet, what with his height, plus the jump of 2 feet, arms of 3 feet and the racket which is about 2 feet long, these half smashes hit with the snap of his powerful wrist are simply unplayable.
Even if Lakshya was able to reach and get it over the net, Viktor was there all ready to play on the cross-court corner. One felt for the 20-year-old India no.1 as he simply withered away not able to pose any challenge. He looked flustered as he would do all the hard work retrieving these deadly half smashes but a thundering Viktor would win the rally.
The great Dane was in awesome form. Like a highly experienced Surgeon, he made inroads with extraordinary precision and carved out point after point with consummate ease. Not once in this one-sided match was Lakshya able to dominate.
In the second game, Viktor just ran Lakshya ragged from corner to corner of the court. the deep long flicks flat to the baseline area causing damage as the Indian just could not reach the shuttle to play a meaningful return.
The easy returns were smashed down by Viktor always lurking near the net.
In short Lakshya Sen was just not in the match at any given time.
Down 0-1 India looked towards the top doubles pair of RankiReddy and Chirag Shetty to salvage a point and bring India back into the reckoning.
And the duo obliged and did just that.
They were simply superb in every department. Chirag was omnipresent, he was here, there, and everywhere. He was dynamic, controlling the net as if there was no tomorrow. Training under Danish coach and doubles genius Mathias Boe, the Indian pair knew all about the Danish style of play and thinking on the court. Good controlled serves and tight defence saw the Indians come up from a 1-5 deficit to 7-8 and then to 11-13.
Creating a good opening for partner Saisatwik for the scorching smashes required to garner points. The Indians caught the opponents at 15-15 and then raced to win the first game 21-18. Chirag moved like lightning near the net punching the loose bird, tapping it straight back on the body of the Astrup and Christiansen.
The Indians lost the second game 21-23 despite leading with two match points at 20-18. They had been down 2-7 at the start and did well to come back into the reckoning but after losing the advantage of match Point serves they lost the plot and lost 21-23.
In The decider, Chirag and Saisatwik were staring at a 4-8 deficit but with quick flick serves, they equalled at 10 and then went to lead 18-14 and again held two match points at 20-18. Terrific fast rallies in which Chirag showed his wonderful way of turning defence into attack helped India to a 22-20 win in 77 minutes.
India equalled the tie score which was now 1-1. This was a fantastic win in a tense situation.
In walked Kidambi Shrikanth with no expression on his face except a look of calm determination. This 29-year-old, former world no 1 has been having a great season at the campaign. With Lakashya Sen not playing in the form expected, Kidambi had taken it upon him to deliver by playing the fulcrum over which India’s hopes rest.
His superb understanding of the game, stroke selection and the never say die attitude he has is almost unparalleled. And this was very apparent as he carved out a breathtaking three-game victory in 2nd singles against world no. 3, Anders Antonsen. The Dane led 3-2 head to head, but the last time the two played, Kidambi prevailed in a hot contest of close three games.
In the match in Bangkok, he won 21-18, 12-21, 21-15 in a rivetting 80 minutes to put India ahead at 2-1. The Indian was brilliant in all departments, be it the sharp net dribbles or the cross-court smashes that punctured holes in the Danish court.
It was not easy as Kidambi was behind 9-13 in the first game but he never lost focus on the ultimate goal: to put his country ahead.
Once he equalled at 13, he simply bided his time pulling Anders in long rallies and finishing off the weak returns. The two rubbed shoulders at 15-15 and again at 16-16 before Kidambi pulled ahead and sealed the first game 21-18.
Anders played really well in the second game, keeping the rampaging Indian away from the net as Kidambi got all his openings from those sharp dribbles. Anders led from the start. At midway with the Dane leading 11-6 after some backbreaking rallies going Anders’ way, Kidambi wisely chose to leave that game in order to conserve his energy and fight it out in the third.
This was a tactical move which paid rich dividends. He changed the pattern now to flick the bird to deep backhand areas of Anders, from where he got many openings. Changing courts at 11-5 he looked well set for a victory for India. The writing on the wall was very clear. He now had a vice-like grip on the game and that he will not let go. At 13-6, we saw him chiselling away patiently just waiting for mistakes from the Dane. A late resurgence from Anders when he moved on to 14-17 did not mean much as Kidambi Shrikant in the driver’s seat, wrapped up the game 21-15 after some 80 minutes of duelling. As he claimed the last point, the serene visage finally opened up in a Tarzan like yell. He had done what was expected of him. He had delivered the third point to his country. India now led 2-1.
The second doubles saw us fielding Panchala and Garaga instead of Arjun and Dhruv Kapila yet again. The inexperienced Indians caved in without much of a fight in straight two games. It was now 2-2 in the tie and it was now left to HS Prannoy to deliver the final cut to Denmark and at the same time create history for India.
He has been the shadow man of India for a long time. Never in the limelight, even though he has demolished the biggest names in this sport, scalping every legend you can think of.
As Wikipedia shows, in his glittering career, Prannoy had defeated Lee Chong Wei, Taufiq Hidayat, and Chinese ace Lin Dan. You come up with a name and he has defeated them.
All except the Japanese dynamo Kento Mamota to whom he had lost 8 times in a row. Yet he has been under the shadow of Parupalli Kashyap, Kidambi Shrikanth, Sai Praneeth who came up all of a sudden, and lately under the shadow of Lakshya Sen.
The cool, calm and collected Prannoy is a soft speaker and basically a quiet person. He is ok playing the second fiddle. But he goes about his business in a professional manner. On his best days, he is poetry in motion, gliding around the court effortlessly. He had overcome Gemke in a marathon three-setter last time the two met. But today was the biggest event for either of them.
Nerves hit him at the start, and he was very tentative, not able to control the bird, playing against the drift, at the start of the first game. He was behind in scores from the start. Down 4-11 and up to 13-17. His game was just not happening and it did feel like Prannoy will not be able to put it across to Gemke. There were mistakes as he was not able to play with control. Most tosses and lifts not finding the lines much to his chagrin.
Gemke, playing the perfect game rattled Prannoy as he picked up point after point.
But something happened in the 2nd game which changed the entire scene. Prannoy had a bad fall and it did look like he may concede due to injury. He was going to lift the bird on his backhand net area and he slipped. But he continued playing with much more diligence. In fact, he started playing a real patient game, moving Gemke around the court. Prannoy was now the puppet master controlling every movement of Gemke.
He was in great command, pulling the opponent to the net and then swiftly dispatching the bird to the baseline with a wristy flick or a fast low trajectory toss. Anything short he smashed hard. This was classic badminton at its best. He sailed to clinch the game 21-9.
The decider now started in the same fashion. Control, control and more control. He hardly made any mistakes as he played perfect length on the toss and fast drop shots which had Gemke scurrying to the farthest corners of the court. It was brilliant tactics.
Even though at the start of the decider he was playing with drift behind him, he controlled his strokes like a genius. Leading from the start he was in his element, enjoying his badminton and even playing on to the gallery.
With the score 17-10 in his favour, with drift now against Gemke and fully aware that the Dane was struggling to control the lifts and tosses on his baseline and would not, therefore, serve to the base, Prannoy did something stunning.
He waited for the anticipated low serve, he took a fast leg forward and tapped the service, like a top-class doubles ace. This was magical, to say the least.
Prannoy raced to complete the game 21-12 handing India a spot in a Thomas cup final for the first time ever.
On a phone call from Bangkok, an ecstatic Prannoy told me, “I had a gamut of emotions in me when I fell down. For a moment I thought I may not be able to play as I was in pain. I thought of the boys, our support staff our Indian fans. And felt I must do my best. Should try to not let them down. Initially, when I lunged at the net the pain would hit me. But I ignored it.
“And yes, I decided just to concentrate on keeping the shuttle in play watching and waiting for his mistakes. I kept on getting points as he got a bit agitated. I tried not to move much. I am really happy that we have created history and India is in the finals. This was a long-cherished dream”.
Now, with one more step to go, I asked him how he was feeling today? ” Yes, I am feeling good. The physios are doing their job. There is little pain today. But I should be fine by tomorrow.”
It is crucial that all our singles players are on top of their form. It has to be a do or die battle for the cup. Indonesia will go for their 15th victory, while we go for opening our account.
We have chances to win all three singles. For our team, once they win, it will be a glory beyond dreams. And finally, India conquered the Danes.
Speaking about the historic moment in Indian badminton, former chief national coach of India U Vimal Kumar said, “I think Prannoy played a very clever game last night. He has adjusted very well to the drift. And a great thing about this team is the team spirit. Everyone is helping each other. The win against Denmark was very special. They are tough. I think India has arrived at the big stage. Reaching the finals is going to give a lot of boost to the game in India. I am also very happy with our first doubles players. They have had a superb tournament.”
When asked about Lakshy Sen, “He is not out of form. But he had food poisoning which is over now. I think against Indonesia he will be in his element. India can win the cup if all three singles win. And Lakshya is looking forward to his match tomorrow”, said Kumar.