With his “best ever year” behind, B Sai Praneeth is focused on just one target— qualifying for the Olympics. Even though he is the highest ranked Indian in the world at No 11 and is likely to make it to Tokyo, the 27-year-old is taking nothing for granted.
And why would he? Sai Praneeth was nearly there on two previous occasions but the right-handed shuttler failed to make it to the Games in London 2012 and Rio 2016.
“We can’t say anything right now. It all depends on defending (world ranking) points. Me, (Kidambi) Srikanth, everyone else has to defend points,” says Sai Praneeth. “If some lower- ranked player plays well in 2-3 tournaments he’ll overtake me, so anything can happen. A lot has happened in the past. (But) This is my best chance of qualifying.”
In order to get the permutation right, Sai Praneeth will have to plan which tournaments to play and which to skip to ensure qualification by the April 30 cut-off date. Starting the year at the Malaysia Masters, where he lost in the first round on Wednesday, and Indonesia Masters next, he will also play the Asia Team Championships in February and the All England Open in March.
“I have to train timely, focus on fitness and play the tournaments well to maintain my ranking. The competition is strong for Olympic qualification. I haven’t really planned my tournaments yet but there will be six or seven continuous tournaments. If I get good performances (and world ranking points), I may skip one or two tournaments. It is going to be hectic but I’ll play All England for sure,” said Sai Praneeth.
With experience, the 27-year-old is confident of delivering on the highest stage. Working in tandem with chief coach Pullela Gopichand and foreign coach Park Tae Sang of South Korea has taught Sai Praneeth how to prepare for big tournaments. They plan his training schedule and one of them is always there during training.
“I have played in three World Championships, I know how to prepare for big tournaments. Also, Gopi Sir is there to help. He has won medals in big tournaments (both as player and coach) so he knows how to prepare (me). If Gopi is in Hyderabad then both will be there (in training), if not then Park will oversee. So there’s not much to worry on that front,” says Sai.
“Park has made small changes to my training but it’s not much because it is about confidence. When you are fit and playing well but not getting (the desired) results, your game doesn’t go down but confidence does. But one or two results may change that. Confidence matters.”
But his confidence is also at an all-time high. Having had a memorable 2019, Sai Praneeth can only hope for better results in the Olympic year. Last August in Basel, the shuttler from Andhra Pradesh became only the second Indian male to claim a World Championship medal (bronze) after Prakash Padukone (1983). The Swiss city proved fortunate for Sai Praneeth as he also reached the final of the Swiss Open. The results led him to break into the top-10 in world rankings and the Arjuna award later.
“The World Championship medal will remain in the records forever,” he says.
However, he hasn’t had much to boast about since the World Championships with the China Open quarter-final in October being his best finish. But Sai Praneeth believes he has not lost his touch.
“I am in form. The practice sessions have been good. I have been playing well but the last couple of tournaments I didn’t get much time to train,” said Sai Praneeth, referring to his engagement in November and marriage in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, on December 8.
After the Indonesia Masters next week, Sai Praneeth will also take part in the 2020 edition of the Premier Badminton League (PBL). He was retained by Bengaluru Raptors for `32 lakh in the players’ auction in November.
“When you play for India in team events like the Thomas or Sudirman Cups, there is pressure. But in PBL you can have a bit of fun and relax. It is a shorter format, a little different, and your mind is relatively free so there is no need to prepare like a big tournament,” said Sai Praneeth who intends to spend more time with his wife after the completion of the Olympic qualifying cycle.