Prannoy loses the final but tweaks in diet, training prove effective

File photo of HS Prannoy EPA/GEORGIOS KEFALAS

At 7-7 in the first game of the Swiss Open final, HS Prannoy rushed to the net and with a hop, put away what looked like a certain kill. Not quite. Jonathan Christie, at the other end, caught the shuttle between his legs inches off the ground and sent it rocketing back. The Indian stood motionless, watching it land on his empty backhand side as Christie broke into a smile, happy with his tweener and showmanship.

Over two games - 21-12, 21-18 - the Asian Games champion stuck to solid defense and sharp play at the net to deny Prannoy his first BWF Tour title in half a decade at the Swiss Open Super 300 in Basel. Christie was hungry too, this weekend marked his first final since October 2019.

Both Prannoy and Christie have had headline-grabbing wins against top names on their CVs, but they've lacked the Tour titles to show for their class. In their previous four meetings, the Indonesian had prevailed on three occasions.

In the final against a Prannoy who appeared resurgent through the week, Christie played the lines well. He used his high-risk, tight net shots to force errors from the Indian with a high success percentage. Christie pushed the pace following the mid-game interval of the first game and appeared to have more mileage on his feet. His cross-court returns, like the one that landed smack on the line to bring up 17-10, ticked the boxes of placement and precision on most occasions.

Early in the second game, Prannoy looked like he might mount some sort of comeback. His smashes down the line from the back of the court were drawing weak returns from Christie, crashing into the net on most occasions. But the Indian didn't play them often enough to sustain pressure on the world No 8, who steadily wrested momentum and clinched the title.

For Prannoy, this was his first Tour final since the US Open in July 2017, when he had won the title. Only a day ago, he had overcame a quick-footed world No 5 Anthony Ginting to make the final. Formerly ranked 8 in the world, he's placed at No 26 now and trying to find his way back into the top-15.

Being outside the top-25 bracket means that he'd be ineligible for federation-funded travel to tournaments. After paying from his pocket to sustain himself on the Tour and sucking himself dry of savings, the Indian found himself back in the top-25 recently. "You're constantly worried if you'll fall off the top 25. It doesn't help that the rankings haven't been unfrozen and results from three years ago are still being counted. Since I was in the top-25 my last three tournament expenses were paid for by the federation. I'm on the edge now again in my rankings. It's not a great space to be in mentally," he said.

Making changes

Over the past seven months Prannoy has been working on areas that he admits to have earlier overlooked. Namely - understanding his gut, focusing on breathing mechanics and seeking mental support.

"I realised I was breathing very hard during matches and not recovering well. Proper breathing can lower the heart rate and it quickens the recovery process too. It's also helping me with my rib cage issues," he said.

Since September last year, with GoSports Foundation's help, he began working with the Bangalore-based Invictus high performance lab and made a few major readjustments to his diet. Chief among them was doing away with bread, milk and rotis.

"Knowing your gut and being aware of what foods don't agree with your body can be life changing. I'm learning to do that. Also having a sports psychologists' team whom I can speak to after a bad tournament is helping me set goals. After losing in the All England quarterfinal last week, I remember feeling lost for the next four days. I see lots of other players struggling with week after week of bad results and nowhere to turn. It's like a conveyor belt. You turn up for a new tournament feeling just as sh** as in the previous week. I was doing the same for a long time. For many players the whole process - perform, deal with disappointment, move on to the next match, comes very naturally. Not for me. I knew I needed help and there's no shame asking for it," he said.

Prannoy is now practicing the "reverse process" of his earlier years. "Until a few years ago, all off-court activities - whether it was sticking to a disciplined diet or physical training regime were for me, secondary to badminton. I've realised that's no good. My focus is now on ticking the off-court areas well. Once I do those, I'll be able to hang in longer in the matches, and last until a breakthrough," he added.

With his first final in five years, Prannoy already taken the first step.