By Mohammed Shafeeq
Hyderabad, July 8 (IANS) Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth is confident of bagging a medal on his Olympic debut as the young shuttler is among key Indian athletes vying for top honours at the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
The Hyderabadi shuttler is India’s only men’s singles player who will be in action and the 28-year-old will be there not just to participate but with the target of winning a medal.
The world No. 15 has set his sight on becoming the first Indian men’s singles player to win an Olympic medal. No male player from India has ever crossed the quarter-final stage at the Olympics.
The Arjuna awardee is fully geared for the top competition and is confident of bringing home an Olympic medal. He is confident of repeating the 2019 World Championships performance when he ended India’s 36-year wait for a men’s singles medal at the event by winning a bronze.
The Hyderabadi shuttler believes that confidence helps one to perform well. The medal at the World Championships has given him the confidence to give it all for his Olympic dream.
He believes lack of regular tournaments over last two seasons could play to his advantage.
“Nobody knows how people are playing and how everybody is practicing or in which way they are improving. So definitely, it is something which is (the same for) everybody. It’s a new way of playing a tournament, more so in Olympics where the top players will definitely be under pressure. So I hope it will be a good thing for me,” he said in a video posted on olympics.com.
Sai Praneeth feels in good shape from playing in four tournaments this year but match fitness could be a concern for some.
“I think, for them also it is not so easy because they don’t know how they are playing. When you see (a player) in practice, everything can seem fine. Only when you play tournaments you will know how good you are playing or how bad you are playing. I think, definitely, it will have an impact and I feel this could be an advantage for me,” he added.
As the former world No. 1 Kidambi Srikanth missed the qualification cut due to cancelled tournaments, he is helping Sai Praneeth prepare for his Olympic debut.
Sai Praneeth is focussing on fitness as he believes that as long as he is fit, he can play his game. Fitness has been the main issue for him. Multiple injuries in the past hindered his progress.
He, however, used the break in training due to the Covid-19 pandemic to focus on recovery.
“This pandemic actually gave (me) a huge break, which I’ve never (taken before). It was almost six to seven-months (break), definitely for me. I’m still getting back. I’m a stroke-player, so for me fitness is the main thing. If I am fit, I can perform well,” said Sai Praneeth, whose best ever world ranking was 10.
Born into a humble family in Hyderabad on October 10, 1992, Sai Praneeth took to badminton when he was eight.
He was inspired by his aunt, a former national level player who used to play with former All England Open champion Pullela Gopichand.
Sai Praneeth used to travel around 18 kilometres a day and then follow it up with another four-hour long train journey for training during his school-days. His talent impressed Gopichand who picked him for the first batch of trainees at his academy which opened in 2008.
His first major achievement came at the age of 18 when he clinched a bronze medal at the BWF Junior World Championships in Mexico in 2010. With every tournament, he improved his game and climbed up the rankings.
In 2013, he shocked badminton legend Taufik Hidayat at the Indonesia Open. The Indian shuttler won the thriller to spoil Indonesian’s party at his farewell event in front of home fans. At the Singapore Open Superseries event the same year, Sai Praneeth defeated the then world No. 4 Hu Yun of Hong Kong.
However, the young player’s impressive march in the international arena was suddenly halted by a shin injury which sidelined him for two years.
He made a comeback in 2015. The next year saw him beat three-time Olympic silver-medallist Lee Chong Wei at the All England Open. He then bagged gold at the South Asian Games and won maiden Grand Prix title at the Canada Open. The series of victories helped him break into top-30 in the singles ranking.
Sai Praneeth continued his good show to clinch his first-ever BWF Superseries title at the Singapore Open in 2017. After Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth, he became only the fourth Indian to win a BWF Superseries title. The next year saw him reaching the quarter-finals of India Open, Australian Open, Syed Modi International and the BWF World Championships.
He then started focusing on further improving his technique to win crunch games against top-quality opponents. The effort yielded the results as he clinched a bronze medal at the 2019 BWF World Championships. Sai Praneeth became only the second Indian men’s shuttler to achieve the feat. Legendary Prakash Padukone won the title in 1983.