Fitter, tougher Sai Praneeth determined to last the distance


There will be plenty of expectations on B Sai Praneeth when he plays his first match at the China Open World Tour Super 1000 event in Changzhou on Wednesday. One reason is that he is one of only two Indian men's singles players - the other being Parupalli Kashyap - in the main draw. But it is also because of the form he is taking into the tournament. Praneeth is ranked 15th in the world, and is coming off a world championship bronze medal - the first by an Indian man in 36 years.

Praneeth himself will admit that medal, won in Basel last month, was a career high considering it came paired with his nomination for the Arjuna Award earlier in the week. Praneeth will be hoping that the momentum lasts this time around. Throughout his 14 years in the sport, he has had moments of magic but often failed to turn starts into something significant.

It is something Praneeth, amongst the most prodigous talents in the Indian scene, has long been familiar with.

"I had always done well as a junior. I had won the U-10, U-13 and U-19 national titles (along with a junior world bronze in 2010). Success at a young age is good because it motivates you to pursue the sport as a career. But the problem comes when people start to expect more and more from me," he says.

Try as he might, Praneeth would always struggle to match expectations, borne out of his innate skill and early success, with consistent results at the senior level. It is not like he has not had his share of scalps, picking up wins over Olympic champions Taufik Hidayat and Lin Dan, and Olympic silver medalist Lee Chong Wei.

But he has always struggled to string together a week of good performances. His straight sets win over Wei at the 2016 All England Championships, for instance, was followed by a loss in the very next round.

"I'd do well and people would start predicting what I would win next and then some injury happened and I'd go down. Then I'd win something and again people would start having expectations and again I'd go down. But that's just how my career has gone."

He has learned to be more philosophical about the ups and downs of his career now.

"When I won the Singapore Open Superseries title in 2017, there were so many people who would say, 'You are so talented why did this result not come three or four years ago?'.

"At that time it was a huge thing because only Srikanth (among men) had won a Superseries title before me. I would say be happy that I have got it. At least I'm at the top, It's not like I'm nowhere in the picture."

But Praneeth is now optimistic his career chart will start to show more crests than troughs.

"The biggest difference to where I was before is that I'm a lot fitter. I lost a lot of time because of injuries, especially my shin injury in 2014. At that time when I played a tough match, I would always wonder if my shin would be all right after that. It took me many years to solve my injury problems," he says.

Praneeth has brought about changes to his regimen.

"I never used to worry about what I was eating but I've become very careful over the last two years. I used to love sweets but now the last sweet I ate was during the Arjuna Award ceremony. I'm now training a lot better. There are some players who don't need to train a lot but somehow manage to play well in tournaments. But I'm not built like that.

"I've realised the more time I can spend training before tournaments, the better I get. I've always known I have the game, my body just needed to support me," says Praneeth, who has had two weeks of practice going into the China Open.

While he has had sparks that have failed to catch on in the past, this time Praneeth feels he has the tools to stay consistent going forward.

"There are some players who are successful at an early age, and then there are others who find their peak later in their career. I think I'm the second type of player. I think this World Championships can be a breakthrough for my confidence for the next tournament and the Olympics."