When HS Prannoy will take on China's Zhao Jun Peng in the quarterfinal of the 2022 Badminton World Championship on Friday, it might just be one of the biggest matches of his career. A win will ensure a first-ever medal at the senior level for the 30-year-old.
He already has a world title this year, instrumental in India's historic Thomas Cup victory in May. But an individual world medal, or even a big BWF title, has eluded him.
The junior Worlds and Youth Olympic medallist has not exactly been a consistent winner on the senior BWF circuit. He has storied wins over Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei as well as regular wins over seeded players on the BWF tour, but he has not exactly followed it up with silverware. This erratic performance, in part due to a series of injuries and health issues, but it has meant falling behind compatriots Kidambi Srikanth (former world No 1), Lakshya Sen, Parupalli Kashyap (Commonwealth champions) and B Sai Praneeth (worlds bronze).
Tomorrow in Tokyo, he has the power to change all that.
In his last two matches, he has beaten second seed Kento Momota and ninth seed Lakshya Sen; both Worlds medallists. On paper, both are upsets. This was the first time he beat former two-time World champion Momota in eight meetings and he went level with 2021 Worlds bronze medallist Lakshya, in head to head meetings, 2-2.
Yet, both can't exactly be called upsets because it feels fitting. Prannoy has played some of his best badminton this season. There may be just a Swiss Open Super 300 runner-up and Indonesia Open Super 1000 semi-final to show for it, but the way he fought back from a game down against his younger Indian counterpart is more proof of the consistent physical and mental improvements he has made.
On Court 3 - not televised in India - Prannoy and Lakshya put up a display that underlined the riches of the Indian men's badminton.
The 21-year-old was more kinetic in the first game, landing his angles and jumping to a lead in all-court rallies. At one point, Prannoy looked frustrated after another error at the net meant Lakshya was two points away from winning the game.
However, he recalibrated quickly and turned the match around in the second game with a stunning defence that would have made Lakshya proud if he were watching from the sidelines as a teammate. Yet, Lakshya was on the other side of the net and by the end, was a similar picture of frustration at game point. Hands on his knees, he got ready for another rally and a shot going long meant Prannoy forced a decider.
Both Indians were playing without their coaches on the sidelines, in a mark of sporting spirit since they are compatriots. But Prannoy looked like he had a working plan - attack, find angles and return everything, from all over. Towards the business end, Prannoy was cheering himself on with fist pumps and shouts after points.
Like the first two games, the third was neck-to-neck till the mid-game interval, but the seasoned veteran kept forcing errors and finding solutions to the pace of his younger opponent. A full-tilt dive at the net was unsuccessful and Prannoy stayed down for a few seconds; not for the only time in the match as the signs of a 75-minute long match showed. But he won the next point with an angled, cross-court winner that has served him superbly in the last two matches.
Prannoy pulled ahead right after, opening up a 5-point lead at 17-12 as Lakshya's body language slumped. The 30-year-old just had all the answers on the day, it was a morale-boosting win as he celebrated loudly, raising his arms on the side before going to hug Lakshya at the net.
Up next though is a challenge that will need him to channel all the momentum he has gained from the last two wins. Zhao is unseeded, like Prannoy, but the Chinese player who knocked out fifth seed Lee Zii Jia is a force to reckon with.
The only time they have faced each other was the semifinals of the Indonesia Open in June - incidentally after Prannoy beat Lakshya for the first time - where Zhao won in straight games. Yet, it was one of Prannoy's deepest runs at the Super 1000 level. Both are former junior Worlds medallists looking for a first at the senior level, both are the last standing men's singles players from their countries.
For Prannoy the key will be recovering physically, something he admitted with a smile after the win. "The body took a toll, I would say. Already everything is paining. I'm wondering how I'll play tomorrow but it feels good."
This physical factor has been a big obstacle for the Indian at the highest level, falling from the highs of being ranked eighth in the world down to 26th at one point, with injuries taking their toll. Yet, Prannoy has persevered, worked on his physical issues a lot over the last year. His rise in the rankings to the current 18, despite the BWF rankings system being frozen is proof.
At the last World Championships, Prannoy made the cut late and knocked two top-10 players out before going down in the quarters to eventual champion Loh Kean Yew. He is back at the same stage, one step short of a medal, but this time as the world No 18 (and second in this year's points), the lone Indian left in singles and a Thomas Cup champion.
In form and well rested after not making India's CWG squad, the time is now for HS Prannoy.