Slow but steady: Why HS Prannoy's Worlds bronze medal is worth its weight in gold

HS Prannoy won his first BWF World Championship medal of his career after reaching the semifinal. Shi Tang/Getty Images

HS Prannoy is an anomaly in Indian badminton.

Before 2023, the year he turned 31 years of age, Prannoy had not won a big BWF World Tour title. He has yet to compete at the Olympics. He even had risen as high as world No. 8 back in 2017 on the back of a bunch of big wins over greats like Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei, Taufik Hidayat.

But as much as his talent and giant-killing abilities shone, the metal didn't follow for the junior Worlds and Youth Olympic medallist. This was in part due to injuries and a gut health issue that has him currently playing with a glucose monitor on his body.

That's why his first World Championship medal - a bronze won by defeating the mammoth that is Viktor Axelsen - is almost worth its weight in gold.

It's his biggest individual victory yet, the first solo medal at the world level in seniors. It's a fitting reward for the work he's put in to become India No. 1 in the last couple of years. A late bloomer yes, but not the other unsporting, 'choker' tag often associated with him and his tendency to pull matches to the extreme and extra time.

Yes, he lost in the semifinals after a three-game marathon against the world No. 3 and the previous Worlds' silver medallist, Kunlavut Vitidsarn.

So close, yet so far. But this time with silverware.

"This bronze medal means so much, personally. It's been almost 12 years on the circuit and you always want to have those big medals in your hand. You're disappointed for not getting the gold, but I think the starting, first step is getting the bronze," he said after his tie against Vitidsarn.

Prannoy is the fifth Indian to win a men's singles World Championships medal. After a long gap since Prakash Padukone in the 1980s, Sai Praneeth, Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen won medals in back-to-back editions. These are the same players who had overtaken the promising junior Prannoy at the senior level.

The 31-year-old's rise to become the top-ranked Indian singles player has been slow but steady and very noticeable, especially since the pandemic shutdown.

At the World Championships at the end of 2021 - a rare Olympic-Worlds year - he got a late entry into the draw and reached the quarterfinal before going down to eventual champion Loh Kean Yew. Two days back, he beat the Singaporean in an epic three-game battle 21-18, 15-21, 21-19 where his ploy at 19-19 in the decider was fortune favouring the brave.

In March 2022, he reached his first BWF Tour final since July 2017, but lost in two games to Jonathan Christie at the Swiss Open Super 300. He was ranked below 25 in the world then, ineligible for funds from the federation and having to travel on his own dime.

In May 2022, came a pivotal moment in Indian badminton, and Prannoy helped steer it there - the historic first Thomas Cup win (the men's world team championship.) The format demanded that players play according to ranking and as India No 3, he had to play the deciders. A pressure situation yes, but also the opportunity to make an indelible mark. Indeed, Prannoy was so confident that he made a WhatsApp group much before the tournament to ensure 'it's coming home'.

Still, when the Commonwealth Games came in July, he was not part of India's squad because only the top two could make it.

In August, he reached his second straight Worlds quarterfinal and once again fell at the hurdle, so close to the medal that would emboss his achievements.

No matter, his consistent semis and quarters appearances meant he was the only Indian in the Top 8 and played the season-ending BWF World Tour Finals. He beat Axelsen in the group stage even if he didn't make the knockouts.

The climb was progressive, even if there were no major finals in there.

The year 2023 took it a notch higher. The big one was May - the Malaysia Masters Super 500 title, won in an epic three-game final. He then reached a second BWF final in the same calendar year - for the first time in nine years, a telling stat. He lost the Australian Open Super 500 title in a three-game epic to the same player he beat in Malaysia - China's Weng Hong Yang. Symbolic of his career - thrilling matches, mixed results but A+ for giving it his all.

The Copenhagen campaign was reminiscent of this career arc - a stunning win over the best player of the generation, a battling loss with his body slowly losing steam.

The ninth seed admitted that it was a physical struggle, as expected from a 31-year-old with an injury-hampered career vs a 22-year-old reigning silver medallist.

"When you're on the court you feel that you're done fully, but when you finish off and come out you feel you could have played a little more," said Prannoy after.

"Physically I was not able to push through today, the legs were not in great shape... I have to really respect how my body is taking these kinds of matches. It's not easy to play 70 minutes, back-to-back, for four days. He's much younger so he's able to recover much faster. But I'm really happy with the way things went this week."

And why wouldn't he be anything but happy. He has a Worlds medal, the only Indian this time, continuing the country's steak from 2011. He beat two world champions back-to-back to win his bronze the hard way. He proved, definitively, that he right up there is Indian badminton's golden period of consistent excellence.

With the Asian Games up next and the Paris Olympic qualification on, Prannoy only has more firsts to look forward to.