But what really changed to inspire the team to do what few expected – beating Malaysia in the Quarters, Denmark in the Semis and Indonesia in the Finals?
While the doubles pairing of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty was billed as the story of the tournament, the foundation for that fiery attitude was laid by senior pros Kidambi Srikanth and HS Prannoy leading from the front: Srikanth won all of his six matches, Prannoy all of his five.
Prannoy spoke up TimesofIndia.com about this experience in a special interview.
Why Prannoy’s performance (5 wins in 5 games) has a little more steel is due to the fact that he twice brought India back from the brink of defeat – once in the quarterfinals and then in the semifinals. Both times India won 3-2 to secure a place in the inaugural Thomas Cup final.
(Image credit: Badminton Photo)
In conversation with Timesofindia.comPrannoy lives through these ups and downs, including his slip and dread in the game against Denmark, relief at not having to play in the final and disbelief at having beaten Indonesia 3-0 to win the title.
You’re part of a world champion Indian team, but it must be a relief that you didn’t have to play a crucial fifth game for the third straight season and just watch and celebrate after the win?
To be honest, I was relieved because I didn’t want to go out there and take the pressure on myself again. It’s next-level printing. The whole country looks up to you in a match like 2-all and when you get into the decider anything can happen. I remember telling everyone (during the final) to give me a chance to run onto the pitch this time. I didn’t want everyone to attack me (laughs). That was really good because it’s always hard to play those last few games… I was mentally ready to play the decider but then it’s a huge relief knowing you can’t take that extra pressure must and can simply enjoy this moment even better.
A 3-0 win over powerhouse Indonesia in the final was almost unbelievable. Did the players on the team feel the same way?
Yes, it was a surprise. But in the back of our minds we knew that Lakshya (Sen) would shoot on that particular day. Somehow we felt like this is the day he’s going to give us that win. But I think it happened very quickly in doubles because we knew Chirag-Satwik didn’t have a great record against Kevin (Sukamuljo, who was Mohammad Ahsan’s partner). That was the game we kept at 50-50. I would say all games were 50-50, Srikanth vs (Jonatan) Christie too. I think the last two games before the Thomas Cup Christie had won against Srikanth. So when you see the recording, everything went 50:50.
(Image credit: HS Prannoy Twitter)
So 3-0 was very hard to even think about. We thought it was going to be the last game. We held Lakshya 60-40 in the first game and 50-50 in doubles. I personally knew Srikanth would make it because of the conditions over there and the way Srikanth was playing. I kept him at 60:40… I felt like he could do it here. I kept it at a 2-all score (with game 5 to decide the final) because I think the second doubles (tie) was really tough… Lakshya gave us that (winning) start and when that happened there was a little bit of a belief that this might actually go 3-0.
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Coming back to the Denmark semi-finals, when you were unlucky with injuries in the decider against Rasmus Gemke. Tell us how that experience was…
The first game was really tough for me, I lost 4-11. That’s when the slip happened. But I would say it gave me a lot of insights on what to do next, what I need to change everything because I had a good 5-7 minute break in between. I was just thinking about what I can do differently to win this game. Yes, a lot of negative things came in because the pain was really bad at first, but then, probably 10 points later, I felt a little better, a little more comfortable with the movements.
I could really understand that these are the specific moves that I need to be a bit more careful with and I really need to avoid those, especially the forehand jump and deep forehand lunge were a little awkward. So I tried to play the game in a way that… I don’t really run the whole court… I think that kind of style worked against Gemke. He wasn’t really comfortable doing that or playing this game.
As I approached the third game, I knew I had to start really well. I had to surprise him (Gemke) with something he didn’t expect and that probably helped me in the beginning. I started the first two rallies at a good pace where I smashed two and continued to build on that. This type of strategy really worked. I wanted to finish the game as soon as possible. I tried to enjoy that momentum, but tactically I made a lot of changes in the game, which again I think kind of helped that day.
The team had a bit of a stutter in the group stage when India lost to Chinese Taipei. Did that loss wake you up (the Indian team) in some way?
That disappointed us a bit because we wanted to lead the group. Getting a runner-up from the other group in the quarterfinals would increase our chances of a medal, but we ended up losing to Taipei. That gave us a lot of insight into our body language throughout the clash against Chinese Taipei. I really felt that we didn’t show that intention against Taipei. But it just changed after that. Everyone was so excited after the Taipei game… Since the Malaysia game (Quarterfinals), every player’s body language has probably improved by a good 30-40%.
A team event has never been India’s forte. In the run-up to this tournament, what did the team do differently this time?
I think in the past few years we never had discussions before going to team events or how to approach team events. We used to just go, play and come back. I think this time Srikanth and I took charge because we knew it was a young team but they had a lot of potential
Everyone was important to this team because if someone is not fit on a given day they (reserve players) have to get up and play ready if there is a game on a given day. You can’t just fool around and think, “Oh, I’m not playing at this event”… You have to be mentally ready, have to be physically ready, have to prepare for the day like we do for a game. I think everyone prepared for these lines.
One thing we all said together was to be very, very careful because this was a very long tournament, almost 10 days. The first thing we had to keep in mind was that there will be games in a tie where some will win and some will lose. You must have seen many draws that went 3-2. So there will be a few players or a few pairs in the team who might be a bit down mentally… But the intention has to be very clear the next day when you come back to play the next game. don’t think about what happened the day before. Those were the things we (the juniors) told as seniors. Sometimes the juniors take losses very badly, they don’t get back to their usual selves the next day. That could be a bad signal for the team.
I think everyone reacted really well and tried to get that win for the team and everyone knew their chance for a certain game could come. All of these were the little things that we shared as seniors because we knew this could happen, it actually happened when we had some bad games against Chinese Taipei.
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As in the case of Lakshya, who was doing his best but playing against the top 5 in the world, he was not doing well either. There were a lot of negative things happening (for him), but he made sure to keep a good positive vibe so he felt like, “okay, nobody’s pressuring me.” That’s exactly what happened before the final in Indonesia, (everyone) said: “We know you’re going to pull this through. There is no doubt’. Such conversations made it easy for the players to go out and play without pressure. We tried that. That somehow helped.
You’ve had ups and downs since 2016 before becoming a World Cup quarter-finalist and then being given the chance to be part of the Thomas Cup team. How have you evolved in all of this over the last 5-6 years?
I think that’s something you develop in as a player and also as a person I would say. It takes time for you to accept that sometimes sports can be a little bit cruel. You want to perform at your best every day, but sometimes that doesn’t work out for some people because sometimes your body is your biggest enemy. You have to fight against ten dozen things in your career and find answers to them.
I think over the last 7-8 years I’ve learned that sometimes it’s not easy, you really have to agonize over it… You just don’t compare yourself to anyone else. You are unique, someone else is unique. That’s what I did after 2017 and 2018, I stopped comparing myself to other people, to my friends, to my colleagues who play at a higher level. I’m just thinking of my luck what I have to do to make me happy doing this routine every day.
I think that changed a lot of perspectives as such. Now I’m finding that happiness again in training, trying to find new things in the training logs, trying to really explore my body as such and accepting what comes in between. If it’s an injury I just take it in my stride and not really worried about it. That’s the change that’s happened in the last few years and it’s also made me a better player.