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15 Oct, 2020
He barely had the trophy in his hands, and hardly had a chance to soak in the celebrations before it was time to head out and hop onto the flight to the next destination and the next championships. We’re of course talking about the night Sai Praneeth became the first & only player to win the PBL Title for the third consecutive year, and it wouldn’t have been out of place to call him the man with the Midas touch.
On that spring night in Hyderabad, in front of 100s of cheering fans the year 2020 must have looked very different, indeed it was very different for us too. India’s leading contender in the race to the Olympics, in extremely good shape, crowned PBL champion for the 3rd season running, he must have had a feeling that this could have been a very special year for him. And it would have taken quite a bit of doing because 2019 wasn’t too shabby either – he’d played a stellar role in winning the PBL for the second time, a first ever Indian male shuttler to win a medal at the World Championships, an Arjuna Award, before he closed out the year in wedlock.
Coming on the back of all that, he would have had to achieve something really incredible to put 2020 into a higher orbit and winning the PBL, third time on the bounce must have felt like just the perfect start. And yet, destiny had different plans altogether – not just for Sai, but for the entire world!
A month on from the starry night in Hyderabad, he was in the cold of Birmingham when the entire world slowly began to shutdown due to the Corona Virus pandemic. A six-month shutdown of both life & sport, postponement of the Olympics and a big break from the game in the absolute prime of his life.
But Sai, has little time to regret and worry about what could have been!
“Yeah, it was difficult, like it was for everyone. But then, it’s not something anyone could do something about. So, I just made the most of it, spending time with family and trying to stay in shape as best as I could!” he says about his lockdown experience.
Getting back to the routine of topflight badminton after a six-month layoff wasn’t easy of course. A few weeks into the return to practice, Sai started experiencing pain in his right knee and had to take sometime off to rest it. The injury forced him to withdraw from the now-postponed Thomas & Uber Cup.
“Missing out on practice for five months had its effect on me.
“After we get 100 per cent fitness, we need another four to five weeks of training to get ready for a tournament. There is no way I am getting to that level," Sai confessed.
As Sai works his way back to full-fitness and to a new year in 2021, Sai believes that the best years are ahead of him.
“Definitely, I think next year is big – there’s Olympics, the World Championships, the Thomas & Uber Cup, its going to be a packed year and I am definitely doing my best to be in the best shape possible for the same,” says the Arjuna Awardee.
And when you see him in practice, you exactly know what he means. He’s going all out to be ready for the Asian leg of the HSBC World Tour in January 2021, and then build on that for the remainder of 2021 – what promises to be a packed and hectic season.
“I am definitely confident of my game, the past two years I have grown, and I believe I can consistently deliver on the big stage,” Sai says.
“To work hard and practice, keep fit and focus on my game is what is in my hands – results matter, but I cant worry about the result as they will take my focus away from the present.”
Sai has seen his share of ups & downs in his career. But then every time someone writes him off, he comes back with an absolute bang! Not sure how many remember this, but prior to his first PBL title with the Hyderabad Hunters in Season 3, he actually had a torrid time in the opening two rounds. Not that he was playing any bad, but just wasn’t getting the results.
And yet, it was him against Chennai in Chennai, that actually started the resurgence for his franchise and played a stellar role in Hyderabad Hunters’ maiden PBL title. Once he got that win against Chennai under his belt, there was no stopping the lanky lad from running amok with the opposition.
His lazy elegance is often misconstrued and yet beneath that calm exterior is a steely resolve. Often shy and demure off the court, Sai is all style and panache on it. His strokes – irrespective of the scorecard – are always breath-taking, and more often than not he’s surgically dismantling his opponents rather than taking them down with brute force.
Both 2019 and 2020, were historical years so far as Sai Praneeth is concerned individually. 2019 for his World Championships medal & 2020 for his third Premier Badminton League title. So, can he make it a historical 2021 with an Olympic medal? Well, having seen Sai in his career and in practice, I’d be a brave man to bet against it!