On Monday, HS Prannoy will step on a court in Nagpur for his first match at the 82nd badminton national championships. It is a tournament he has never won and not because he hasn't tried. Unlike many international players who routinely chose to skip it, Prannoy has given the nationals a shot on four separate occasions since 2011, going as far as the semifinal in 2014. Not many will count on that drought to go on much longer.
Prannoy is in the form of his career. On Thursday he rose to a career-high 11 in the world rankings. This by itself isn't a striking number. It has been overshadowed now by his contemporary Kidambi Srikanth's ascent to 2 in the same chart. Prannoy admits as much. Yet it is a figure that tells more of his journey to this phase of his career.
Prannoy's rise has been built on methodic consistency -- two Superseries semifinals and a Grand Prix Gold title - if not shiny trophies. "It might not seem a particularly big number for people, but for me personally, it is a huge number. At one point this year, I was ranked 30. It is not an easy place to be in. It was a huge task to move up to 20, and from 20 to 11," he says.
Prannoy has been in this situation before. He was previously ranked a career high 12th in June 2015. Yet the breakout that was expected never really came. Periodic injuries routinely broke any momentum he appeared to gather. "With all these injuries and layoffs and disappointments in the last so many years, I am pretty happy to get to this position but there is a long way to go. The next job would probably be to get into the top 8," he says.
Breaching the top 8 - a ranking that would allow him direct qualification into Commonwealth and Asian Games and better draws in the Superseries - will come as a consequence of a more simply-defined goal. "I am just hoping I go out there and play. For me, I need to work a little more smartly because my body condition is like that," he says.
The rippling muscles on Prannoy's powerfully-built frame deceptively hide its many frailties. Only 25, he has had more than a fair share of injuries. Knees, back, and even toes have given way under the workload of international badminton. It is a reality Prannoy has come to terms with.
His body's weakness, he says, has been there right from the time he first picked up a racquet. Prannoy's is an incredibly original story, featuring borrowed videotapes and training under a shuttle-crazy father in badminton backwater Kerala. Yet that improvised learning resulted in long-term physical damage too.
"My first training was not proper. When I was learning the sport at home, I was not training the right way. Most of my injuries are strength-related. For example, I have had knee injuries. If you don't have enough strength in your joint, it will get injured if you overtrain. I never did any strength training. There was nobody to guide me. It was just my dad, but he didn't have an idea about the strength aspect.
Nowadays, everyone is doing it but that was not something I did. I started doing all of that when I was 20 or 21. By the time I got into the senior circuit, my body had started to show signs," he says.
It is a condition that can, at best, be managed. "All the mistakes that I did before are starting to hamper me when I am 24. All the injuries are coming out now. When your body is 20, it can adapt to these stresses. When you are young, it is easy to recover. When you are older, it gets a little harder," he says.
It doesn't help that Prannoy's hig- octane game ravages both opponents and his own physique. "Because of my style of play, there is a lot of impact on the body. But you have to accept these things. It is just how I play. I have to be very aggressive on court. That is how I get the best out of myself," he says.
His ruthless mindset makes Prannoy one of the most dangerous players on the international circuit. In the last few months, Prannoy has beaten Olympic Champion Chen Long and three-time Olympic silver medalist Lee Chong Wei, including consecutive wins over both of them at the Indonesia Open.
At the French Open, his second round opponent Hans-Kristian Vittinghus remarked that Prannoy was someone who could beat anyone on his day. "Beast" was what Srikanth termed him after a hard fought semi-final. "People are scared to play me," Prannoy laughs. "I have a reputation on the court. It is a reputation that hasn't come in one day," he says.
That giant-killing fame is also one that keeps Prannoy motivated in the absence of a big title. "Considering where I started from, I never thought I would even play at this level. Or even play against one of these legends. But at this time, I am the only one who can say I have beaten all three (Lin Dan, Lee and Chen) of them. I am proud to say that," he says.
Of course this isn't to say that Prannoy is satisfied with his lot. "Frankly, it is impossible to be happy with what you have. You always want to be more. You always want to be number 1 in the country or number 1 in the world. There are obviously areas to work on. I need to be less predictable in how I play and I need more deception at the net," he says.
And while closing in on those dreams will be steadily more challenging, Prannoy believes he is due to catch a break eventually. "Of course there are things I missed out on and tournaments I came close to winning. But I am not worried. I have a feeling that everything in my life takes a little bit of time to happen. In the next couple of years, things will fall into place," he says.