Tracing Indian badminton ace B Sai Praneeth's rise, one win at a time
Inspired to take up the sport by his aunt, a former national level shuttler, a young Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth left no stone unturned to forge himself into a successful badminton player.
While in school, reaching daily practice involved an 18-kilometre commute followed a four-hour train journey but B Sai Praneeth was persistent in his quest to succeed.
The hard work paid off and before he realized, his impressive displays at U-13 and U-16 tournaments were turning heads, including that of Pullela Gopichand.
The Andhra shutter was, in fact, one of the first few players of the renowned Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad when it was opened in 2008.
Two years of practice under Pullela Gopichand’s tutelage and B Sai Praneeth had his career’s first significant achievement by the time he was 18 as he won bronze at the 2010 BWF World Junior Championships in Mexico to announce his arrival on the global stage.
Up against the greats of the game
After clinching both the singles and doubles titles at the Iran Fajr International tournament that year, B Sai Praneeth’s next big opportunity at the world stage came at the 2013 Indonesia Open.
B Sai Praneeth found himself pitted against Indonesian great Taufik Hidayat, who was playing in his farewell tournament in front of his home fans, in the first round.
The 2004 Olympic Gold medallist was the favourite to see off the 21-year-old Indian badminton player but a determined Sai Praneeth dug deep into his reserves to go toe-to-toe with the Indonesian star before winning the thrilling three-game affair 15-21, 21-12, 21-17.
Brimming with confidence, Sai Praneeth followed that win with another high-profile victory against higher-ranked Hu Yun of Hong Kong a few days later at the Singapore Super Series.
However, he was soon sidelined by an injury at the end of 2014 but he announced his comeback with three titles – the Sri Lanka International Challenge, the Lagos International and the Bangladesh Open International Badminton Challenge – in 2015, as regular senior circuit action awaited him.
Competing in top tournaments as a lower seed meant B Sai Praneeth had to face some of the legends of the game. And his next big opponent came in the form of Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei at the 2016 All England Open’s opening round.
The three-time Olympic silver medallist, very much in his prime, was favourite to advance but a tenacious Sai Praneeth got the better of the Malaysian in straight games.
Climbing up the rankings
B Sai Praneeth saw his BWF world rankings hovering in the 30s in 2016 when he ended the season with a South Asian Games gold medal and his first-ever BWF Grand Prix title at the Canada Open.
The Indian shuttler took that momentum into 2017 with a silver medal display at the Syed Modi International and then claimed his maiden BWF Superseries title at the Singapore Open.
Consequently, B Sai Praneeth became only the fourth Indian to win a Superseries title after Saina Nehwal, P.V. Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth.
After a gold at the 2017 Thailand Open, Sai Praneeth had climbed from 36th to 16th on the BWF rankings table – an impressive leap of 20 places - by the end of the year.
World Championships glory
He moved further four places up to 12th in 2018 by reaching the quarter-finals of the Indian Open, Australian Open, the BWF World Championships and the Syed Modi International.
At the 2019 World Championships, coming into the tournament as the 16th seed, he won all his first four rounds in straight games and reached the semi-final to win a bronze medal.
Consequently, he became the first Indian male shuttler in 36 years to win a World Championship medal since Prakash Padukone in 1983.
"This was one of the best tournaments that I ever had in my career," the World Badminton Championships bronze medallist said.
The Olympic dream
After coming agonizingly close to landing an Olympic spot at the 2012 and 2016 Games, the time has seemingly arrived for B Sai Praneeth now.
With the Badminton World Federation freezing world rankings owing to the coronavirus outbreak, B Sai Praneeth is the only Indian male shuttler sitting in the direct qualification range (top 16).
Hoping to make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics, the Indian badminton star currently sits 13th on the rankings table.
“I think what Sai has achieved for men’s badminton (in India)... is a good starting point to do even better in the future,” reckoned Pullela Gopichand.
Clearly, there is more to come from the shuttler from Hyderabad.