HS Prannoy is the lone Indian player competing at the 2022 season-ending BWF World Tour Finals - where only the top 8 players/pairs of the year take part - starting Wednesday in Bangkok.
The world No 12 has been placed in Group A along with Olympic and world champion Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, Japan's Kodai Naraoka (world No 14) and China's Lu Guang Zu (world No 17). The top 2 from each group qualify and Prannoy is seeded third, behind only the Danish world No 1 in the rankings. Chou Tien Chen, Jonatan Christie, Anthony Ginting, and Loh Kean Yew are the four players in the other group.
Prannoy has enjoyed a terrific season in 2022, climbing back into the Top 15 for the first time in four years after starting the year ranked 26th. This is the first time he has qualified for the year-end competition, after a consistent showing in what has been a landmark year for Indian men's badminton.
Prannoy has not won an individual title this year but he helped the Indian team clinch their first Thomas Cup (the world team championships) in May. He also managed a runner-up finish at the Swiss Open Super 300 and reached the semi-finals of the Indonesia Open Super 1000 as well as the Malaysia Masters Super 500 event. He didn't make it to India's Commonwealth Games squad as he was the third-highest ranked Indian behind Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen, but has been more consistent than his compatriots.
What are Prannoy's chances of making it to the knockouts?
The top 2 from each group qualify for the knockouts, and unlike the regular tour, a defeat doesn't mean an exit from the competition. Even so, Prannoy will need a minimum of two out of three wins, but he has a negative head-to-head with each of the players in his group.
Axelsen is the undisputed star of the season with a 39-match winning streak - a world record in the discipline - while winning five Super Series. He has a 5-1 advantage over Prannoy but the Indian beat him in their last encounter - at the Indonesia Open in November last year.
Japan's rising star, Naraoka has beaten Prannoy in the only match they have played, at the Singapore Open earlier this year while the Indian also lost to China's Lu Guang Zu in their only meeting, at the French Open - both were three-game battles.
Nonetheless, Prannoy will back himself to make it out of the group. The 30-year-old has improved his consistency incredibly this year, with several wins over higher ranked players and deep runs. With a month-long break since his last tournament in early November, he will be rested and raring to go. A fit and motivated Prannoy at big tournaments is always a threat, the kind that doesn't care much for reputations of players on the other end.
Capitalising on the big wins and finishing tournaments has been a challenge nonetheless, but Prannoy will look to make a mark in what is his debut at this stage, aged 30.
Where are the other Indians?
If Prannoy is the third-highest ranked Indian and couldn't make it to CWG, how is he the only Indian playing the BWF Finals?
The answer to this question is that while the world rankings consider historic points, the year-end rankings look at only the points from in BWF World Tour events in a calendar year. In 2022, Prannoy has 66,730 points from 14 tournaments - the third-highest overall. By comparison Sen, who also had a superb season which saw him climb to a career-higher world No 6 ranking, had 50,030 points and is 11th on the 2022's 'Race to Guangzhou' standings (where the BWF Finals were to be held initially before being moved to Thailand over China's COVID-19 situation).
It's a similar case with the doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty - who had a breakthrough year with multiple BWF titles and a World Championship medal. However, they are 14th in the standings, having missed a fair bit of the season with injury.
Among the women, PV Sindhu - the only Indian to win the season-ending championships back in 2018 - had qualified for this year's BWF Finals as well, despite not playing since on the circuit since July. But she will miss the tournament due to the injury that she sustained during the Commonwealth Games in August which has kept her out of action since.
The 2022 BWF Finals start on 7 December and will be available in India on Voot and Sports 18.