‘Want to make sure that I keep this consistency going’
After a brief injury-enforced pause, HS Prannoy, India’s World Championships and Asian Games bronze medallist, will be back competing on the BWF tour with the Japan Masters beginning next week.
For a player known more for his giant-killing acts than title-winning ways until a year ago, 2023 has been a watershed year in Prannoy’s career. Ending a six-year individual title drought at the Malaysia Masters in May, the 31-year-old went on to also pocket a stunning World Championships bronze in late August beating Viktor Axelsen in the quarter-finals and a singles bronze at the Hangzhou Asian Games in early October that tested every ounce of his physical reserves.
The world No. 8, on a visit to Mumbai on Wednesday for a collaboration with Federal Bank, talks to HT about what pleased him the most about his title and medal wins this year, bringing out his best while facing adversities and 2024 Paris Olympics hopes. Excerpts from an interview:
It has been a year where you’ve won tournaments on the BWF Tour and medals at the World Championships and Asian Games. Which is that one aspect about it that has been most satisfying for you?
It’s playing consistently good badminton, which I think I could do this year over a long period of time. That was the main aim also after last year’s performance. Last year was very good for me, but I couldn’t go deeper into a lot of tournaments, which I really wanted to do. Still, I felt like I was making good progress. The aim was to keep doing that this year also. The belief was always there that it is just one tournament which can change a lot of things. I think Malaysia (Malaysia Masters in May) was that tournament which gave me that belief that, ‘OK, it’s possible to go deep and win tournaments also’. From thereon, there was a string of good performances and thankfully, the entire support staff has been pushing really hard so that I can perform back-to-back consistently. So more than any of the bigger medals, I would say the consistency has been very pleasing to me personally. It shows that you’re doing something right. But of course, getting medals in bigger events is always something which gives a big boost to your career. So that way, I’m glad that it happened this year, and in a span on one month, I could get both the Worlds and Asian Games medals. I totally didn’t expect the two medals to come in such short span of time.
Going deeper in tournaments had been a challenge for you earlier. What has made the biggest difference there: the mindset or the physical part of it?
I would say both. Probably a bit more of the physical aspect. Malaysia Masters was a very physical tournament for me; I remember playing three games in the first three rounds. During the semi-final and final, I realised that my body is actually able to take it. We had done a few changes in the training in the last six months to adjust to the issues which I was facing physically post the first three matches. I think I was being good until the quarters, but then there was a dip in physicality. I probably was not able to recover well for post quarter-final matches. So, we worked on things physically. And that, post Malaysia Masters, gave a lot of confidence, saying ‘OK, something has worked from a physical point of view’. Mentally too, I’ve been doing a lot of work.
What kind of work?
It was about continuous work on the mind — when you face tough opponents, what can you do to hang in there and not let it go. In situations where you’re one set down and have to really dig deep to win three-setters. We were trying to replicate those kind of matches during the psychology sessions. We were also doing small activities to make sure you’re not getting irritated. It was a vast area to work on — being able to push mentally on days when you feel you’re not doing well and when a lot of irritation crops in. The major agenda was to fight those irritations and still perform.
Like at the Asian Games with your back issue, adversities perhaps bring the best out of you. Would you agree?
Probably yes. There have been a lot of situations recently where things did not look that great from a physical point of view. But I could dig deep. That means there’s a lot of reserves in your body. You realise it later, that the body is prepared to push more than a certain limit also at times. But there’s a tough part to it as well. If you’re completely fine, you should be able to play in that same mindset, about just letting it go and playing.
You’ve spoken earlier about the role of your support system, including national coach Pullela Gopichand and coach RMV Gurusaidutt. How much do you rely on them to tell you things and how much do you self-analyse?
Everything depends on them, to be honest. This is a sport which is very physically demanding. So, everybody has an equal role, starting from Gopi bhaiya to Gurusai (Dutt) to my physios, trainer, psychologist, nutritionist. At this level, what I’ve realised is that the difference is very minute. There are no big changes that are going to come in my game or my body. It’s just about those small differences. And how you keep improving on those small things is really important to, probably, winning a medal at the Worlds or losing in the quarter-finals. I’m glad that everyone is working together, everyone knows what’s happening to me on a daily basis. The communication has become stronger in the last year and a half, which has made my job easier, which is to just train and not think about anything else.
Looking ahead, the next 6-9 months will be key in terms of the Paris Olympics qualification path. Do you have a roadmap for it?
Not really. But from a qualification point of view, we still have a lot of tournaments left, especially from January next year. The important thing is to take things a little bit more slowly and not rush on anything. It’s critical to back off at times and ensure that mentally and physically you’re fine. But yes, the next 2-3 months will be also crucial for the qualification period. I want to make sure that I keep this consistency going and win more tournaments.
Considering you missed out on the Tokyo Games, have you circled out the Paris Olympics as a big goal for next year?
(Smiles) I rather not think about it, honestly. I know for everyone out there in elite sport, you want to always represent your country at the highest level, and that is definitely the Olympics. I know that there is a decent chance to be a part of Paris. But I keep telling myself that it’s better to keep very short term goals and take it week by week and not think about six months down the line. I’m trying to do that. That said, Paris is definitely at the back of my mind. And hopefully, I can be there by July end and get the flight ticket to Paris (laughs).