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Crafty Sai Praneeth runs into nerve demons in Momota loss

How Foo Yeen/Getty Images

Sai Praneeth is sheepish about his jaw-dropping winners. Even the dazzling no-look shot against world No. 1 Kento Momota at the World Championships last year.

A video clip of that rally - Praneeth reflexively dispatching a cross-court return from behind his back - turned into a viral hit. Praneeth, though, is coy in admitting the number of times he has watched it himself, pegging the count to "less than ten".

Praneeth lost that match in 39 minutes, summing up why he is loved and chided in equal measure -- the brilliance of his nuanced and crafty play and how it can all come to naught.

In the Japan Open semi-final against Momota on Saturday, he once again dazzled with his shot quality, be it the down-the-line forehand which fetched him a 3-1 lead in the opening game, the beauty of a drop shot to win a 20-shot rally, or the clever net dribbles he peppered his play with.

"I just had to be more patient," Praneeth, ranked No. 20 in the world, rued after the 21-18, 21-12 loss. "But I kept making mistakes every time I was in the lead. The way he (Momota) retrieved every shot, rushed me into making errors. I could have won this match."

It wasn't all bleak, though.

Praneeth became the first ever Indian to make the semis of the Japan Open. He did so without dropping a game against three higher-ranked players - Kenta Nishimoto (World No.11), Kanta Suneyama (17) and Tommy Sugiarto (18).

After a spectacular 2017, where for the first time three Indian men's singles players were ranked inside the top 15 and the average rank of the top five Indians rose from 28 to 17, it has been a quiet 18-odd months. The slump is harder to miss since it's endemic to the whole bunch of top Indian players. This year, Kidambi Srikanth (India Open) is so far the only men's singles player to win a Super Series title.

"Last year we were just focused on the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games," Praneeth said. "This was in addition to the 12 BWF mandatory tournaments. So it was just matches, matches and more matches with very little time to train or recover from a loss. Somewhere, that may have affected us."

There is also the void left by national coach Pullela Gopichand, who has skipped travelling to tournaments this year.

"At the back of my mind, even when I was up 9-6 in the second game, I knew he (Momota) wouldn't give up. I knew I had to push. That's when you miss Gopi on the sidelines," Praneeth said.

"He knows you inside out, can read your mind and the thoughts you're battling and will just tell you to cut it out and go for it."

That passage of play ended with Momota reeling off five straight points and heading into the mid-game interval with a two-point lead. .

It is not how he had imagined things would pan out when he spoke of the crack in Momota's fallibility the night before the match. Ahead of the semis, Praneeth held the most respectable head-to-head record against Momota (2-2) among the Indian players. The last time he beat the Japanese, though, was way back in 2013.

Momota, who returned on the tour in late 2017 after serving a three-year ban, whiplashed everyone with his game.

"At the moment it's Momota against the world," Praneeth said. "Every player is thinking of just one thing - how to beat Momota. So everyone is watching him, deconstructing his game, finding gaps and it is slowly becoming tougher for him. I think it happened to Srikanth and some of us too after the way we played in 2017. People figure you out."

Over the years, Praneeth has run into a repute of pulling the blinds on the top guys. His signature wristy, deceptive and enthralling style has earned him some massive scalps, including former world champion Taufik Hidayat, Olympic gold medallist Chen Long (2019 Swiss Open) and former World No.1 Lee Chong Wei (2016 All England Open).

"After such a huge win (against Chong Wei) I went and lost the next match. So it can look silly. I need to be more consistent if I want to have results."

His notoriety for self-destructive play, imploding when he's in the lead is something he often kicks himself over.

"When you lose two times from a leading position, the third time the moment you're ahead your mind asks you 'are you going to fluff this?' It happens to everyone. Maybe with me, a little more than others.

"I know I can beat the best guys. But I still need to win the next match."