Tuesday was about two unlikely heroes. Ajay Jayaram and HS Prannoy may not exactly be the poster boys of Indian badminton, but their exploits showed they are well on their way. Jayaram upset world No. 2 Jan O Jorgensen of Denmark while Prannoy beat world No. 4 Son Wan Ho of South Korea to hand Mumbai Rockets a 6-0 win over Delhi Acers at the Premier Badminton League.
"Both Ajay and Prannoy have had great successes but I think the more often you can play against these top five or top 10 players and beat them, you draw that much more confidence," says former national champion Aparna Popat. "In the larger picture this just shows the depth we have in the men's singles." Neither Jayaram (world No. 19) nor Prannoy (world No. 27) has an Olympic appearance on his CV yet, but their firepower suggests they could get there.
With Acers calling for a 'Trump' (which gives a bonus point for a win and a negative point for a loss) in the Jorgensen-Jayaram match, the Indian took an early 6-3 lead riding on some whiplash smashes. "I had never played him (Jorgensen) before," Jayaram told ESPN. "I went into the match pretty confident with a good couple of months behind me. I started off well and I could see that he was struggling a bit with the drift and wasn't getting the length. Also I think there was some pressure on him because it was a Trump match, so I capitalized well on it. I was quite happy with the way I played aggressively from the beginning and maintained a good amount of pressure. It was definitely a huge win for me."
Jayaram, 29, overcame long periods of injuries over the past few years to fight his way back into the sport. In 2015 he became only the second Indian after Kidambi Srikanth to make a Superseries final, at the Korea Open. "While you can't avoid injuries, I've learnt that you can minimize them with disciplined training and recovery methods," he says.
Prannoy, 24, too, has come off a largely injury-ridden year. He hung on after being 7-7 against his Korean opponent in the second game, asserting himself in two spectacular rallies, lasting 26 and 27 shots respectively, to take the lead. Popat feels Prannoy's game has evolved of late. "Earlier he was only about attack," she says. "Every time a shuttle came up, he would smash. I think that's also to do with the Kerala style of play -- they don't like the long rallies since they predominantly play doubles. So a lot of them are physically very strong and able to hit very hard. But in singles that's not the only strategy that works. You've to be able to adapt and that's what he has done."
By a quirk of fate, Jayaram had failed to qualify for the 2012 London Games despite being higher ranked than P Kashyap, who eventually participated. Not catching the Rio flight last year, though, isn't something he looks back on with regret since he didn't have enough good results to find a spot. But the period helped him rebuild his game and allowed his body to recover completely. "I skipped a couple of tournaments, took time off from training and it really worked well for me," he says.
Popat says Jayaram's game has matured from purely an attacking style to constructing rallies better and his frequent injuries have allowed him to find the balance between not pushing his body too hard yet extracting the most. "I really like his game because he's very fluent on court," she says.