Battling back injury & limited training, Prannoy slays Axelsen

Prannoy H.S. of India reacts in the Men's Singles first round match against Lee Zii Jia of Malaysia on day two of the Yonex Thailand Open on January 13, 2021 in Bangkok, Thailand. Shi Tang/Getty Images

Four days before he was to fly to Odense, HS Prannoy felt his back snap. This was six weeks ago. He decided to travel anyway and flitted from one tournament to the next - the Denmark Open, the French Open and the Hylo Open - in the European swing, collecting first-round losses in each. He hadn't gone past the second round all year either.

On Thursday, he showed little memory of his dismal results index, overcoming reigning Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen 14-21, 21-19, 21-16 in the second round of the Indonesia Masters Super 750. This is the first time in four years that the Dane has lost to an Indian player. Kidambi Srikanth had previously beaten him at the 2017 Denmark Open.

Prannoy has always been something of a giant slayer. At the 2017 Indonesia Open, he sent Rio Olympic gold and silver medalists - Chen Long and Lee Chong Wei packing on consecutive days. He also carries a positive head-to-head record against the now retired five-time world champion Lin Dan.

"I had a really bad back injury just before the European circuit and I was struggling on court for three weeks. I couldn't even train," Prannoy, presently ranked 32 in the world, told ESPN after the match, "Since I had entered myself in all three tournaments and wanted to play a few matches, I somehow hung in and didn't concede them. The important thing is to keep playing tournaments through the bad patches and gain match practice. Suddenly you're in a Super series quarters and you could end up grabbing that one match. Today I was just trusting myself and my training from six weeks ago."

Trailing by a game, the 29 year-old Indian pockmarked Axelsen's deep forehand corner, and used his crosscourt drops to troubling effect while fashioning a comeback. The world No 2 was visibly coming undone with each shuttle that Prannoy managed to put back on the court. "When the shuttles are fast it's tough to take those smashes from Viktor because they can land really steep," says Prannoy, who had Parupalli Kashyap in his coach's corner, "Because of the slower conditions I could pick them and my straight smashes too were working well. I missed quite a few but I kept hitting them consistently and attacked whenever possible. I was also trying to defend a lot of the crosses today which is why I think he stopped hitting too much from his backhand side."

Halfway through the second game, Axelsen's body language - dropping his head back in dismay, and just stopping short of smashing his racket in anger - was telling. Prannoy fed off the signs. "Yes I could see it too. You know it was hot and humid, shuttles were slow and I was dead tired too. In quite a few stretches during the match I was feeling like 'OK I'm done', particularly around 13-13 in the third game. But again I was pushing myself and telling myself that I've just got to keep one more shuttle inside. He wasn't getting any easy points from me so that may have weighed on him. Probably towards the end he was a lot more tired."

For a cerebral player with a game that can lay traps beautifully around the biggest names, Prannoy lacks the silverware. He's had to battle a vicious foe - his body - throughout the length of his career. Injuries and ailments of all kinds - back, knee, ankle joint, ribcage and shoulder, dengue and Covid have peppered his body the past five years.

He's known to joke about conjuring up a good win after every layoff. "It's really disappointing that I'm not able to get consistent wins across tournaments," he says, "I've had lots of breaks and gaps in my career and tons of issues with my body. Once I sort one, I'm on to the next. The past four or five years, I've just been running around each and every portion of my body and plus COVID happened, and all those things have been really draining. It can be tough to manage all of it alone, find the right balance and continue to train and compete at this level. Just before the Denmark Open I was in one of my best shape but then I suffered a back injury. It's been a recurrent theme for a few years now. I have no one to blame. I just have to focus on what can be done and play the best I can."

He next plays Kidambi Srikanth in Friday's quarterfinals. The last time both these Indians were on opposite ends of the court was at the 2019 Japan Open, which Prannoy won in three games. "We haven't played each other in a long time, so it should be fun," he laughs, "I just have to be consistent enough at this level. I can't have a really bad day after a great day."