BWF World Championships: Sai Praneeth pulls rabbit out of hat

NEW DELHI :The tightest of spinning net shots was as fine as a thinly bending steel paper-clip, holding together loose sheets of what was essentially Sai Praneeth’s career story. Leading 14-12 in the second in the pre-quarters of the World Championships, after having snatched the first set against Indonesian higher seed Anthony Ginting, Sai Praneeth felt confident enough to take one of his edge of the seat risks.

It had been a medium length rally already with two outrageous shots sent to the Indonesian’s back court. You know Sai Praneeth is about to step onto the tightrope when he transplants training session net tricks into real-time. That he would attempt it at a World Championship was faintly ridiculous, but it’s in the gymanstics of the wrist at the net that lies the beauty of a Sai Praneeth magic trick.

So about 20 back and forths into the rally, Sai tried to stump Ginting – he with one of the quickest reactions on the circuit – with a net tap which he retrieved. Two exchanges later with Sai still lurking at the net harrying his opponent and draining him mentally, he actually let a shuttle dip a second extra, an inch deeper towards the floor. Everything about his reaction pointed to a high lift and that would have wrong-footed Ginting too.

But using his favoured sorcery, Sai played the most controlled of dribbles, the thinnest of pencil strokes in a sketch, sending the shuttle like a lightly blown feather along the net’s trajectory. It was a reverse U-bend shuttle, tossed up like a show-pony chef would flip an omelette. Within centimetres of the net without touching it, the shuttle plopped over to the other side, and Ginting who would’ve seen the whole thing in slow motion and closely could do nothing about it

Dumped into the net, it gave Sai the 15-12 lead, got the commentators gushing after compelling them to switch their affection. And it utterly broke Ginting’s spirit.

Sai Praneeth can get into moody reveries in training sessions where he loves trying a thousand nudges and pushes, angles and slices at the net. As long as there’s someone across the net to feed the shuttle back to him. This one time during the badminton league for 30 whole minutes, it was Carolina Marin. These are technically not shots he plans to use in a match, just some juggler’s meditative jugglery. On his biggest day on the international circuit — when he reached his first ever quarterfinal of a World Championship – the net fiddler, actually applied that muscle memory to win an audacious point.

Another Indonesian — Jonathan Christie — awaits him in the Last 8.

It could’ve gone awfully wrong really. And it was completely against the gritty grain of the match which he won 21-19, 21-13. Nine of his 21 points in the opening set came from pushing the 5’7” Ginting to the backhand backcourt. Three drifted wide as well. But the intent was to get the busy Indonesian 23-year-old, rated very highly after a stellar Asian Games last year, to commit errors on the backhand far side. So, Sai would crowd that flank with returns of all manners of length and height.

Crunching smashes

There were three crunching down the line smashes to Ginting’s backhand, and a gorgeous crosscourt smash at 8-5. But for large part, Ginting was being cramped across his body — hitting straight into the net, or sailing one cross wildly.

Some other Sai strokes stood out. At 11-8, he flicked a crosscourt at the net with assurance to take the lead at the interval. He also pounced on a net kill to go to 18-19, and attacked Ginting’s serve rattling him.

Ginting, usually very vivacious on court and speedy, was running into several speed breakers simply because Sai was mixing things. More crucially, and a departure from all his previous outings, his errors were only when going for the high quality strokes – a net chord here, a good set-up not pulled off there. But unlike all times before, Sai Praneeth was gritty.

“He was pretty gritty to keep attacking all the way through. And keep pushing,” coach Gopichand said mighty pleased with his charge whom he has seen fade away in the past when pressure builds. “The stadium is physically draining. shuttles are very slow, they play true, so lots of long rallies. He picked up a lot of good shuttles, kept attacking and the pressure made Ginting crack in the end,” he would add.

As such, Sai would wrap up the opener with a backhand lift that Ginting dumped into the net, and then get into the second with the momentum giving him a bounce in hisfeet as he led 4-0.The second set would see two other delectables – at 6-2, he sent down an overhead return which looked cross but went ripping straight. He would lose a long rally after Ginting launched a comeback and went up 10-8. But a clutch of half smashes as well as stringing the shorter Ginting on the end of a forehand backhand pendulum along the breadth of the court meant the Indian wasn’t about to crumble like he usually did. Post 15-12, Sai was a different beast. Upbeat, he would race to the next 6 points, letting in only 1 from his pulped opponent.