Sai Praneeth's need to stay fit sets his path towards success

India’s rising badminton star B Sai Praneeth won his first Super Series crown at the Singapore Open after defeating K Srikanth in an all-Indian final on Sunday.

Roslan RAHMAN / AFP

The jigsaw pieces are falling in place – he has victories over the likes of his idol Taufiq Hidayat, Hu Yun, Lee Chong Wei and Muhammad Hafiz Hasim; he has worked to stay fit; he has won badminton matches that have gone into the decider; last year he won a Grand Prix crown beating Lee Hyun-il in the Canada Open; and, now, B Sai Praneeth has added a Super Series title.

The 17-21, 2-17, 21-12 victory over compatriot and fellow-Hyderabadi Kidambi Srikath will train the spotlight well and truly on the strapping Sai Praneeth. By all accounts, he will handle that with dignity and grace, something that his mentor P Gopichand will be proud of. It will be well ingrained in his mind that this is but a milestone on a long journey.

The 24-year-old will be pleased that he has been able to win the decider in crucial matches, having expressed a desire last year to improve his physical fitness. Having had to deal with a series of injuries in 2014, the former world junior championship bronze medallist has been aware of the need to stay fit, improve stamina and strength to be able to make the most of his wristy craft.

It did not seem to matter that his friend and rival had the experience of winning three Super Series crowns while he was playing his maiden final at this level. He played Srikanth as if they were playing one of their early morning contests at the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad, pulling no punches.

It was the second time this year that Sai Praneeth would drop the first game of a match against Srikanth and to win in three games. He had achieved the turnaround on January 28 in the semifinals of the Syed Modi International Gran Prix Gold in Lucknow. The composure with which he approached the challenge of overturning a 1-6 deficit in the second game was admirable.

The ONGC star was content to play the waiting game, dribbling sharply and tossing smartly. He chose the right moments to smash, springing up on his feet and arching his back to reach the shuttle and send it flying across the net and to the floor before Srikanth could position himself. The errors of length and width that Srikanth committed came as a bonus for Sai Praneeth.

Older than Srikanth by six months, he lay spread-eagled on the court and let a sigh escape him. That one breath had nearly all the emotions he had coiled within for 54 minutes – pride and joy, and, of course, relief. He will now return to his journey with the added burden of expectations that will now accompany him each time he steps on court.

Ranked No. 30 at the start of the tournament, the Singapore conquest will ensure that he rises to his career-best ranking when the Badminton World Federation rankings are released next. The young man will himself be delighted if he can stay injury-free and play the sport that he so dearly loves, parading his skills and staying humble.

He knows the jigsaw will be complete only when the bigger crowns come his way.

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