The Comeback Kids of Indian Badminton – The Indian Express

Clutching his back held together by a belt and its jagged, scratchy velcro, bent over breathless at the end of each closing point, HS Prannoy’s audacious down-the-line winner after saving two match points against Lee Zii Jia could be the enduring image of Indian badminton this Asian Games. Satwik-Chirag brought the glory, Prannoy brought the guts to the quadrennial.
The man was struggling with pain, and Zii Jia stole two match points away from him from the brink of a win in the second to push this into a decider. That third set had been pure drama, and is fresh in the mind ten days later.
Prannoy led 11-10 in the decider. The Malaysian had steered two net chords his way at closing stages of the second, and one went in Prannoy’s direction to make it 18-18 in the third. A long attritional rally followed and Zii Jia was 20-18 up to winning. Prannoy pulled out two almighty cross smashes to level at 20-20. It is at this juncture that the Indian showed just how strong he is mentally, scrubbing the physical pain away from his conscience. Under extreme pressure, he struck just within the line with nerveless precision to win 21-16, 21-23, 22-20 to break Malaysian hearts, and win India an individual medal that the country hasn’t since that silken skill of Syed Modi in 1982. He said he was at 80 percent dwindling to 50, but his tactical mind and that deft forearm was running at 200 percent as he worked out those finishing winners.
It’s a mystery really why noone had won an individual medal in men’s singles in 40 years. But a half-broken, fully-driven Prannoy did come back from the disappointment of losing the second set to nail down that elusive medal. Matching Syed’s bronze.
A much underrated comeback at the Asiad though, was Lakshya Sen’s. From the downer of the World championship exit, from knowing he hadn’t clinched the individual spot after losing trials, and from a season where he hasn’t quite kept pace with his batch mates Li Shifeng, Kunlavut Vitidsarn and Kodai Naraoka. There was little drama in this comeback, because Sen was so ruthless in his execution.
India were playing Korea in the team semis to ensure a medal better than bronze. The doubles matches were fraught because Korea aces pairs events more times than not. India’s singles had to get the job done. Prannoy had given India the 1-0 lead, but Satwik-Chirag couldn’t go past the world champions and it was 1-1. Korea had wound up in the semis defeating Malaysia and Indonesia, thanks to Lee Yun Gyu, who had packed off their fancied No 2s. Sen started by spraying four smashes against Yun Gyu. What followed though was clinical, sharp round the head hitting both cross and straight, as Sen settled all nerves to win 21-7, 21-9 and put India 2-1 ahead.
His slice of the comeback drama-pie came in the final. Prannoy had opted out of the final match against China to rest his dodgy back, and the mantle fell on Sen to play the first singles. In the opening set, Sen fell 19-20 behind, but summoned a round the head smash to the lines and an offensive push, before he had two attacking kills from the net, to take the opener 22-20.
Yuqi defiant as ever in the second grabbed the momentum, going for body smashes and peppering Sen’s backhand to take it 21-14. Then came that passage of play when Lakshya Sen reprised his All England 2022 form and went from 9-14 down in the decider to 14-14. Like a switch gets turned on, Sen whose pace had been dawdling behind retrieving monotone snapped out of it and took 5 points on the trot. His hand speed revved up, the rallies got aggressive and he went for bold kills as he drew out a nervous serving error from Yuqi. Sen jolted awake when closing out, he had a separate game skillset for finishing. And he thundered three power smashes down the line with so much shoulder on them, that the impact was felt across the net as Yuqi trailed 20-16.
The abiding image of Sen from this Asian Games will be charging to the front court and hitting it into Yuqi’s body to win 22-20, 14-21, 21-18 and put India 1-0 up. The lead did not endure as Shifeng denied Srikanth a comeback from a close first set. But Sen had briefly made beating China in China look so imminently possible.
For Satwik-Chirag, the next match against World Nos 2 Liang-Wang was the desperately needed comeback from a month long downturn. They lost verve inexplicably in the World Championships, and had gone down to the Koreans in the team event. Playing the team event like Thomas Cup champions, they silenced the home crowd playing seamless combinations of attack, not once looking like under a spot of bother. The Chinese were denied any opportunity to gain ascendancy, as Indians refused to be drawn into flat exchanges.
Satwik kept dunking it down the centre of the court, and Chirag, his attack flowing too, kept the forecourt buzzing as they regained confidence from the disappointments of the past month. The sweet, scything scoreline read 21-15, 21-17. India’s 2-0 lead would vamooze, but it resurrected the duo’s mental framework, which they would carry into the individual event where they struck the historic gold culminating into World No 1 – beating the Koreans.
For most, their’s was the Daddy of all Comebacks, the bounce back from the missed medal of the World Championships.
Kidambi Srikanth will cop a lot of criticism for going down to Li Shifeng in the team event, that meant India couldn’t win gold. But given how Shifeng not only wrapped up Prannoy in the individual semis giving him no chance, and went on to win the individual gold, Srikanth’s 24-22, 21-9 loss seemed destined.
Srikanth led 20-19 in the first, eschewing wild errors with tight control on the shuttle when going for the lines. His pace was measured. His net followups sharp. But Shifeng increased his pace on returns opening up the court. Srikanth was a little loose on the net though. At 20-19, he offered his all – picking everything before drawing out a net dump from Shifeng and then constructed a beautiful point, crossing and heading to the net for a backhand net kill. But he couldn’t pull out the winners at the finish and the second set never got going, after the heartbreaking first. China clawed back 1-2 and went on to win the team gold.
It was in the semifinals though that Srikanth pulled out the fifth decider against Korean Cho Geonyeop to assure India a silver. His slice of comeback came after dropping the opener 12-21. The match saw a flurry of sensational vintage strokes from Srikanth playing against a shuttler who had levelled up to match the occasion. Srikanth contrived to turn it into a thriller by nixing his own winners with uncontrollable errors, fortunately fewer than the former. He slaved it out in the long rallies, and grew near-perfect on the net dribble to win 12-21, 21-16, 21-14 and for the first time reach the Asiad team final.
While Satwik-Chirag and the men’s team came back with medals, perhaps the most emotional comeback was for the coach who had returned to travelling and sitting for matches at the start of this year, after almost three seasons. Pullela Gopichand never donned an Asiad medal, but has brought all his tactical acumen and mentor’s energy to resusciating Prannoy’s career and bolstering Satwik and Chirag’s confidence. Winning the Asiad medals is tougher than Olympics at times, so this was a grand comeback for the quiet planning genius.
Shivani Naik read more


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