A B Sai Praneeth win is not something anyone would bet their sweet life on; that would be PV Sindhu these last few years. He is utterly profligate with his talent and his implosions are many. Yet, when the Indian World No 23 lines up against World No 1 Kento Momota in the semi-final of the Japan Open at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza, venue of 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there is that tingling anticipation about what the 26-year-old might dish up in trying to deny the home contender a title defense.
K Srikanth and HS Prannoy are popularly considered the two that’d make the Tokyo grade, if India qualifies two men’s singles shuttlers, with Sameer Verma next in line. Known for his last-second deception, Praneeth has the ability to pip either of the two for the Olympic spot. But if his flourish doesn’t land him the Olympic spot, India’s most entertaining third wheel, and motorcycle sidecar, will be missed at Tokyo
For, Sai Praneeth, with a highest ranking of No 12 and presenting a dozen possibilities each time he steps onto the court, is prone to the unusual. He beat Taufik Hidayat at 20, packed off Lee Chong Wei from Round 1 of All England one sudden year, won back-to-back titles at Thailand and Singapore in 2017 (10 days of epic consistency given his highly yo-yo days on the circuit), has beaten Chen Long this year while making the Swiss Open finals, and has the eye-rubbing stat of 2-2 (his two wins way back in 2013) against Momota. Praneeth is 5-3 against Srikanth, 2-2 against Prannoy and 4-2 vs Sameer Verma.
After home challengers Kenta Nishimoto and Kanta Tsuneyama, his fine run might skid to a halt against Kento Momota, though he did well to set up the date after a 36-minute dismissal of Tommy Sugiarto.
A little devilish voice in Momota’s head though, might jog back his memory to Singapore in April this year. Round 1 vs Sai Praneeth. The Indian was comfortably going down 13-19 in the decider – the fate of many a three-setters featuring Sai Praneeth. This was after they split the first two sets – 21-19 to Praneeth and 21-14 to the Japanese, who’s 24 years old. From 13-19 down in the final set – two points away from defeat, Sai Praneeth levelled to 20-all; two points from victory. He would fluff it from there – a very tame last two points, as is his wont. But the period between 13-19 to 20-20 must’ve left Momota with his heart in his mouth. Sai Praneeth most unexpectedly brings out his most stylish and confident strokes – crosscourt smashes and some blind shots with back to the net – at such dramatically opportune times. He would pick all of Momota’s smashes and get his own revving.
It’s the sort of pressure that Momota can crack under. He’s not looking as invincible as last year with the Chinese Shi Yu Qi shredding his nerves at the Sudirman Cup final (a proper 21-5 meltdown in the mid-set and eventual loss). Though a bad year for Tokyo’s early favourite means an All England and the Asian Championship titles won, even if there are two losses at Indonesia (Super 500 and Super 1000 after last year’s Asiad loss) for Momota. Last week, he went down to Huang Yu Xiang, China’s 5th player in rankings.
Sai Praneeth has not beaten him since 2013, but after the April encounter, he’ll fancy his chances at taking a swipe at the Japanese under immense pressure to win at home.
So what does the Indian have at his disposal?
Shuttles at the Olympic venue are playing true – fastish, but no menacing drift that makes it hard to control. Sai Praneeth had built his fitness heading into this season and though it might not reflect in his 9-8 win-loss this year, there is an attempt at steadying his wobbling consistency by running and retrieving and taking time in rallies. Sai Praneeth has the unpredictable strokes – a lot of wrist-artistry and flair to just disturb the metronome rhythm that the Japanese likes and a decent momentum built at Tokyo with 3 straight-sets wins. It could all end in a familiar blank. But don’t be surprised if he pulls a rabbit out the hat, and shuts the lid over Kento-in-the-box.