Prannoy beats Axelsen to continue Olympic gold medallist-beating run

In the quarters, he faces another Indian on the upswing – Kidambi Srikanth.

If the Summer Games of Tokyo were instead a glorious autumn blaze in Bali, HS Prannoy would’ve picked some shiny medals. Prannoy likes slaying reigning Olympic champions in Indonesia. In 2017, he had packed off the 2016 Rio Games finalists Chen Long and Lee Chong Wei on a spree. At Bali on Thursday in Round 2 of Indonesia Masters, he took apart Tokyo champion, Viktor Axelsen, with a come from behind 14-21, 21-19, 21-16 win.

It’s not his outrageously brimming arsenal of strokes – the Backhand Beast, they call him – that usually fetch him the big scalps. It’s the discerning eschewing of the big strokes — holding them back until really required, that gets him the headline bounty hunts. With P Kashyap slipping in timely tips from the coach’s chair against Axelsen, Prannoy took down the great Dane by simply putting a lid on his deep crosscourt smashes that were over-running the lines on the World No 2’s backhand far court.

“It was good. Lots of positives throughout the game. I was playing really well in the beginning, first half, probably three or four bad shots though and I let go off the first game. But it’s really good to be patient and especially in the third game. Shuttles were slow, rallies were getting longer and he was also getting tired. It was important to trust myself saying I can beat him and that probably pushed me towards the end of the game and at 15 in third,” he told the BWF.

Sometimes not making mistakes, keeping things clean, earns you big dividends. His lacklustre ranking of No 32 gives no inkling of the big names he has beaten, playing intelligent but creative badminton.

“Kashyap was telling me the right tactics at certain points. Lots of credit to him. Towards the end of the second game, I had a good lead of three-four points and I closed out after 18, 19. I was telling myself not to hit those long smashes because I was missing those towards the end of the game. But I was trying to not hit those smashes and prolong the rally as much as I could. Was trying to hit only when there was a clear shot,” the underrated player added.

“I knew I always had the game in me to beat all these big guys. I just needed to be consistent. Today’s match will give me much more confidence. And the energy to work harder and trust myself that I can still beat the top players.”

His inconsistency forces him to be content with many scalps, but few titles.

Prannoy knew Viktor had grown into a win-machine, and would need drawing out.

“Viktor has changed a lot. He’s playing incredibly well and has been consistent over the last few years. And he’s the man to beat. I had no expectations coming into this game and just wanted to play the best I can. It was important to trust myself saying I can beat him and that probably pushed me towards the end of the game. Viktor has pulled out these long, close matches in the past. That was running through my mind that he could come back anytime and I cannot relax at any point,” he said.

There were no roars in the end, and his equanimity comes from knowing bitter failure and disappointment.

“Winning the first round itself was a big, mentally tough. I had a few bad matches in the European circuit and just play and be happy. That was the only motive. There was no strategy.”

In the quarters, he faces another Indian on the upswing – Kidambi Srikanth.

Srikanth’s confidence plunges Christie

Maybe, because the reasons for Srikanth’s implosions have been so difficult to accurately pinpoint, when he actually starts winning, it becomes similarly tough to nail down what is precisely clicking for him. Yes, the net-play is sighfully skilled and chucklingly clever. The follow-up shot at the net to his smash self-assist looks sensational. But when it all goes missing, and a confidence crisis cascades – like it has for three full years – you are left wondering, if it was only his knee that took a knock, or was it the need to believe that went kaput.

Beating World No 7 Jonatan Christie 13-21, 21-18, 21-15 at the Indonesia Masters in Bali, Srikanth reckoned he’s had enough mileage on his court-wheels; he’s getting good match-time, something he desperately craved before the Olympics. But leave it to his vanquished opponent to explain what ‘Srikanth gaining confidence’ looks like from across the net.

“What Srikanth did in the third set, I couldn’t handle,” a gulping Christie, would tell the BWF after the match, where he referred to Srikanth’s bulging confidence as the match progressed, as the cause of his own downfall.

Christie insisted his back injury wasn’t acting up, but Srikanth just grew into an unslayable and unplayable giant as time went by. “I had a plan. But in the second and third set, Srikanth had his confidence back. I just couldn’t play the game I wanted to. Mistakes happened and he grabbed the opportunity,” Christie said.

“I didn’t know how to maintain focus, or which strokes to play and whether to attack first or defend was the dilemma.” he said.

It was around 16-all in the second that Srikanth brought out the champion’s finishing flurry, with three crucial continuous, spirit-shaking points. Christie had dominated the opener and was perhaps lulled into believing the Indian would keel over. It wasn’t to be.

“Srikanth is very, very good on attack. Maybe I could make my defence strong and make him run to the corners,” Christie said. More likely that Srikanth wouldn’t allow him to.

Srikanth needs the mileage in his feet, to hit the groove. Just how much he has craved playing these matches was apparent, when he later said, “Coming into the European leg, I played well in Switzerland. But after that I couldn’t play much in many tournaments. Couldn’t play well in the Sudirman and Thomas cup. I was expecting to play better. Started really seeing that progress from the Denmark Open. Happy with how I played in Germany. Happy pulling off close matches here. I’m just happy to be on the winning side. Happy I could do a little bit better than him in crucial points. Happy to play many matches with these kinds of opponents,” he stressed.

The patience to play out the tricky 14-all into a steep take off was visible, and with his non-favourite slow shuttles, to boot.

“I haven’t played such matches in the last year and half. I hadn’t set myself any goals. Not thinking too much. I strongly believe I can get much better from here. But it’s a continuous process and I want to continue playing, be in the tournament, play more matches,” he told BWF.

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