Improbable, but not impossible - Sai Praneeth's Mission Momota at World Championships


The relief that B Sai Praneeth felt when he sealed a 24-22, 21-14 win against Indonesia's Jonatan Christie in the World Championships quarterfinals was plain for all to see. Down on his back, he turned over and was overcome with emotion, as he knew now that he would come away from Basel, Switzerland with a medal.

It's been a near-flawless week from the World No. 19, who is yet to drop a game, and the semi-final place was just reward for his consistency. He has beaten two Indonesians ranked higher than him in Christie and Anthony Ginting in successive matches, and looked in control in both of them.

This was the easy part, though.

Up next -- the top-ranked player in the world, and the man who stopped him in the last eight a year ago. So how does Sai Praneeth bring Kento Momota down?

Set aside recent record and history

The two met for the first of their five matches in 2013 at the India Open, and then again at the Indonesia Open later that year, and those two matches remain Sai Praneeth's only wins against Momota.

That was when Momota was just starting out, still in his teens, and his rise in stock has been remarkable since then. Momota has a 3-0 head-to-head record in all matches since, with wins in Singapore and Japan this year to go with the World Championships win in 2018. Sai Praneeth has taken only one game off Momota in that time. While he has been quite consistent this week in Basel, Sai Praneeth must approach Saturday's game with a clean slate in his mind.

Being the rank underdog against the World No.1 could free his mind up, and that might just be the best way to approach the challenge ahead of him.

Speaking after the quarterfinal win, Sai Praneeth talked about a key factor that might hand Momota an even bigger advantage -- the lack of drift in the venue. "He's World No.1 and people are still searching how to read him. He's really good at his game. You need to stick to your game and play along with him and make him lose points. After Singapore, I have played him in Japan as well. The conditions are different in Japan and Singapore, and here (and in Japan), there is no drift. When there is no drift, he is really good because he can play whatever he wants. Let's figure it out, and hope for the best."

Keep Momota away from that forehand

Momota has one of the most powerful and varied forehands in the men's game, and his left-handedness anyway makes him a tricky opponent on the best of days. HS Prannoy tried - and succeeded for one game - to keep Momota away from freeing his arms on the forehand side, and Sai Praneeth must also aim to do the same as judiciously as possible.

The flip side to that is that you can fall into the trap of becoming a bit predictable. If your game plan is something that Momota susses out early, then he can up the ante and start playing on his terms, as Prannoy found out in the round of 16. Sai Praneeth must mix up power and deftness, but by and large, must aim to keep Momota away from getting room on his left.

Patience will be the key

Though Sai Praneeth won the second game against Christie rather easily in the end, the first game was a microcosm of what could be Sai Praneeth's biggest weakness -- his lack of patience, and the errors that can creep in when that happens.

Christie defended well, and in trying to kill points off, particularly at the net, Sai Praneeth skewed a number of shots wide or into the net. He must be prepared to play a game of attrition at times with Momota -- you would rather have your opponent finish a rally off with a high-risk shot than hurry into a mistake yourself.

Sai Praneeth touched upon this post his quarterfinal win too - "I think in the first game, the rallies were really big, and in 90 percent of the rallies, I was attacking. I was hitting, hitting, and that was making me more tired than the rallies. The first set was really crucial - if he had won the first set, maybe it would have been different. The first set was really crucial, and later Gopi sir was telling me, 'you don't attack. Let him attack.' That changed the rhythm and the coach's words proved to be really helpful."

More of that is what's required against Momota.

Keep the pace going

What has stood out in Sai Praneeth's performance at the World Championships has been the pace at which he has played. His swift movements have complemented the power that he can generate with his reach perfectly, and he must look to do the same against Momota.

In many ways, Momota is the exact prototype of player that can neutralise all that has been good about Sai Praneeth in Basel this week. The best players also have an off day, though, and that is where any opening must be seized upon if India is to get its first men's singles finalist at the Worlds.