With a little less than three months to go before the qualification period ends for the Tokyo Olympics, B Sai Praneeth is one of only two Indian singles players -- the other being PV Sindhu -- who are on course to make the cut for the Olympics.
Praneeth's bronze at the World Championships last year, where he became just the second Indian man to medal at the tournament, went a long way in ensuring his ascent up the rankings, but he has struggled for form after that -- making just one quarterfinal appearance in his last eight tournaments. Six of those eight losses came against players ranked higher than him and in the top eight of the world rankings, with four of those matches going the distance.
Praneeth too feels that his post-Worlds slump is nothing to be worried about, saying, "I think it was not bad, I would say. I mean at the start of the year I lost in two tournaments in the first round, but now I am slowly getting back to my best and making improvements."
It is a problem that he has faced in the past too. Praneeth is the kind of player who generally struggles in the first couple of rounds before getting better as a tournament progresses.
With the Olympics being the biggest competition this year, Praneeth has set himself clear targets. "I think this year's target is the Olympics," says the world No. 11. "First, ensuring qualification for the Olympics and then getting a medal."
For now, though, his focus lies on the ongoing Premier Badminton League (PBL). And why not? If there's one player who can lay claim to being the MVP in the tournament, it is Praneeth. Praneeth has been a part of the title-winning team in each of the last two seasons of the tournament.
Just like in the previous two seasons, he got off to a slow start this year too, losing his first two matches. But he has remained unbeaten in his last three matches for defending champions Bengaluru Raptors, who are set to make the semi-finals.
Having failed to win a match before the PBL this year, Praneeth's play reflected his rustiness in the first couple of matches. He is the highest ranked men's singles player in the tournament this year and his wide repertoire of strokes bears that fact out. Unlike most other Indian players who rely on their big smashes and skilful net play, Praneeth always looks to outwit his opponents rather than looking to outhit them.
His best display this season came against Daren Liew in the Raptors match against Hyderabad Hunters, who were playing in front of a boisterous home crowd. Liew, a former Worlds medallist himself, is a vastly experienced campaigner, but had no answer to Praneeth's trickery as he was frequently manoeuvred out of position by the wristy Indian.
Speaking after that match, Praneeth said that the tournament is ideal preparation for the rest of the year. "I think it is very good match practice," he said. "The tournament is being played in three different cities this year, where the conditions are different and you face many different players. You will generally play a match every three or four days, so it is very good practice. Also, when you win a match it gives you a lot of confidence and it is a good way to start the year before playing on the World Tour."
Having become just the seventh Indian man in history to break into the world top 10 last year, Praneeth says that while rankings are important, he generally sets targets for tournaments rather than aiming to achieving a certain ranking. "I think it is obvious that whenever you play well, your ranking will improve," he says. "So you always want to perform well but the Olympics is the main target for this year."
Attributing his successful run at the Worlds to staying injury-free and his improved fitness, Praneeth says that is important to manage one's workload. "If I perform really well in a couple of tournaments, I might skip a tournament or two but it all depends on the performances," he says.
Praneeth has always been a big-match player. He is, after all, the only Indian player in history to defeat the big six of Taufik Hidayat, Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei, Chen Long, Viktor Axelsen and Kento Momota at least once.
"I think [the PBL] is very good match practice... Also, when you win a match it gives you a lot of confidence and it is a good way to start the year before playing on the World Tour." B Sai Praneeth
Other than Lee, who has been ranked world number one for more weeks than any other men's singles player, all the other names on the list are world champions, with Taufik, Lin and Chen winning gold at the Olympics as well.
While these stat point to his ability to beat the best, it is only now that he's backing his prodigious talent up with consistency and improved fitness.
The last two Indian men's singles players who played the Olympics reached as far as the quarterfinals but Praneeth's display at the Worlds and his big-match temperament mark him out as a dark horse at the Olympics, as someone who can go a step or two further and return with a medal.
For now though, he'll be happy guiding the Raptors to the title this year and making his case for PBL MVP even more resounding.