Asian Games: Prannoy the gladiator defies injury and age to win quarters, secure medal

HS Prannoy. Shi Tang/Getty Images

After 78 minutes of back-and-forth, battling, badminton, HS Prannoy lay sprawled, face down, on the court. He then banged his fists on the floor, got up, took his shirt off to reveal a heavily taped back, gave his coaches a long hug (Gopichand looking visibly emotional), and then engaged in a small jig while packing his kit.

He'd just beaten Lee Zii Jia 21-16 21-23 22-20 in the quarterfinal to win India's first men's singles badminton medal at the Asian Games since 1982. He came through an intense battle fought with a bad back and worse luck to add another first to his path-breaking season.

That post-match dance was diametrically opposite to what he did on court in Hangzhou.

He had to dig deep, find the trenches of physical and mental reserve, ignore excruciating physical pain to bend and retrieve and plan and gamble for over an hour to reach the semifinal.

"I'm not at all in a condition where I could say I'm 80 per cent right," Prannoy (31) said after the match. "But I think to pull off something like this, I would give a lot of credit to myself. I think the will to fight was always there. So, I think that paid off."

Though the higher ranked player at world No 7, Lee was a much younger, former All England and Asian champion who'd beaten the reigning world champion to reach the quarters.

If the incredulity of the quarterfinal against Lee Zii Jia, had to be told in brief, it would be:

  • Game 1 - Prannoy fight backs from 5-11 down at the break to put one foot in the semifinal.

  • Game 2 - Prannoy squanders two match points to go into a decider his injury-ridden body can ill afford.

  • Game 3 - Prannoy saves two match points after needing a medical intervention to go on and win a rare medal.

In between these stark numbers, there was a rollercoaster of extreme emotions and actions.

Prannoy's deft touches at the net, and the unbelievably lucky net cord that saved the first match point.

Prannoy pushing his body to go for the smashes right on the line, precise but risky, and the millimetres of difference between a point won and lost on review.

Prannoy breathing heavy with his hands on knees looking like winded but defending and returning the shuttle wherever Lee pushed it on court to tire him out.

Remember, he had missed the men's team final against China on Sunday because of the back injury. More than an hour of strenuous bending and retrieving against a player of Lee's calibre would have taken an extraordinary effort.

"It is affecting me," he said. "But that's how sport is. You can't be 100 per cent every day. But you have to learn to pull off matches even when you're 60 or 70 per cent. I think today was one of those days when I had to do that,"

That's HS Prannoy for you. A physical battle is often the sweet spot for the player who knows he has to be uncomfortable to win.

With his grit and spirit, he has the ability to elevate the sport fought between racquets in an indoor court to a swordfight in an arena. This invariably means he is engaged in a battle that leaves him winded, the opponent frustrated and the viewer thoroughly entertained.

Every time HS Prannoy has added a new chapter to his book of firsts in 2023, he has done it after a thrilling battle that can be described by sporting cliches such as epic, marathon and thriller.

So how could an Asiad Games medal be any different?

A big part of the Prannoy experience is how he can fight back from virtually any position. He can mentally regroup from close misses and bad odds and win. How else does one beat Viktor Axelsen in Copenhagen for a first World Championship medal?

A reason for this is his own belated realisation that he had to do things he hated and make himself uncomfortable to achieve big things. This meant a whole change - mentality and diet, giving up certain food and setting any goals.

"If you're not able to get up in the morning and train, you should realise that you're doing something wrong. I think I had that realisation in 2020 and I knew I had to change something," Prannoy had told ESPN after his Worlds medal, detailing how he pushed himself to become the version of the player he is today

If discomfort is the fuel to his fire, then being put in these deciders on court so often is almost a comfort zone for him. His body may be on the brink, but he pulls himself through via sheer willpower. This is what has made him India No 1, just about a year after being ranked below the top 20 and having to fund his own travel.

He has another battle on his hands when he takes on either top seed Anthony Sinisuka Ginting or sixth seed Li Shi Feng for a place in the final. For now, though, he has added a notch to his bow and can make history for India by winning silver - or even gold.