Strength of Mind and Will Has Elevated Prannoy to the Elite Level

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It was around 1am India time that I was finally able to speak to Pullela Gopichand. Gopi is someone who can take both victory and defeat in his stride and stay calm. Emotions don’t really get the better of him.

Not last night. “He needs to recover physically,” he told me. “That’s my only concern. Two back-to-back marathons when he wasn’t 100 percent physically. But with Prannoy, it is also mental. The mental state he is in, he can just go and play anyone at even 60-70 percent. That’s what I am banking on.”

The words were coming out in a torrent and Gopi, very unlike his usual self, was excited. “This has to rank as one of the greatest victories of his career,” he said. “In fact, for Indian badminton. Just think of the context. Viktor [Axelsen] at home in front of buoyant Danish fans. We had just lost in the doubles against Anders and Rasmussen. He had lost to Viktor twice in the last two months, and the last loss was when he was in a winning position. It scars you mentally, such losses. And here he was a game down. To win from there against the best player in the world was something Prannoy should forever be proud of.”

I was transported back to the day after India won the Thomas Cup in 2022, with Prannoy starring in the victory. He was still in Thailand, and I remember him telling me, “Yes, it has been difficult but that’s where I credit Gopi Sir and the team. Gopi Sir has always told me that if I want to be a very good player and have a long career, I have to keep it in mind that I will lose 2-3 years because of injury. That’s par for the course if you have a long career. That’s what has happened in my case, and the important thing is I have been able to come back from it all and do something tangible. Victories like these give you the confidence to keep going, and that’s something I will bank on going forward.”

Prannoy was very much in the moment. India had just won the Thomas Cup and he had turned a new leaf. He knew he was playing some quality badminton and had to make the most of his form. “I have had self-doubt in the past,” he told me. “I used to ask myself questions if I could make a comeback from injury and play at the top bracket again. Things weren’t easy. When you know you have the ability and yet you can’t get to the top because physically you have issues, which aren’t really in your control, the situation is somewhat helpless. To overcome it and win the battle mentally was perhaps the most important challenge.”

Credit: Badminton Photo

He has. And how. Just before leaving for Denmark, he told us, “Look, to tell you the truth, the body isn’t fully recovered for the World Championship. The truth is I needed a little more time to recover and be fully ready. Having said that, I now know there will be these phases when I will not be 100 percent. Rather, I will be at 60-70 percent and I will make do with it. So I am aware that it is not the best scenario but I will try to manage the situation. And I will not put any pressure on myself because there are 20 tournaments to be played in the year and there will be occasions like this.”

When he spoke to me on August 17, I felt he was a bit under the weather mentally. May be he had not recovered from the crushing Australian Open loss, where he squandered a 19-14 lead in the decider. May be the World Championship draw had pushed him back a little. To play Chico in the second round followed by Loh Kean Yew in the pre-quarters, and bump into Viktor in the quarters was the most difficult draw possible. May be he was trying to mask his emotions.

In fact, he went on to say, “Coming to the China Open and Asian Games, I think there is enough time before the Asian Games for me to be fully ready and get the training time I need. So I am much looking forward to the Asian Games. We almost have the entire Thomas Cup team, so we will do our best to win a medal and thereafter each one of us will gun for an individual medal and give our very best.”

It seemed that more than the World Championship, it was the Asian Games that Prannoy was eyeing.

But then, this is a very different Prannoy. One who is mentally strong enough to overcome any kind of physical adversity. In his case, the mental triumphs the physical. May be he wasn’t 100 percent after the LKY marathon. May be he was stiff. Whatever was the case, he must have said to himself mentally, “I have played two quarter-finals in the last two years. God has tested me many times before, and this is one more time. So what if I am physically not at my best?”

With Gopi and Guru by his side, Prannoy is now right up there. With Viktor or anyone else. He is making up for lost time. For himself and India. At 31, he is literally the “BEAST”. When you play him, you know you are playing one of the best in the business. We have seen Djokovic do it when he has seemed down and out. We have seen Nadal do it time and again. We witnessed our own Prannoy do it last night against the world’s best on his home turf.

Did Prannoy see Neeraj Chopra throw 88.77m in Budapest just a few hours earlier? Did he take inspiration from India’s greatest athlete? May be he did. With Neeraj in the afternoon and Prannoy at night, it was India shinning. On the greatest sporting stages, against every adversity. Most importantly, it has given us hope.

Praggnanandhaa, Neeraj, Prannoy – one after the other. Can you believe it? I still can’t. Add the multiple Olympic quotas in shooting in Baku. Yes, India is finally becoming a multi sporting nation.

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