In the final match of one of his best-ever seasons, HS Prannoy beat Viktor Axelsen - the reigning world and Olympic champion - in a three-game battle to end his debut campaign at the 2022 BWF World Tour Finals in Bangkok on Friday.
He won 14-21, 21-17, 21-18 in a superb comeback win. The Group A match was a dead rubber with the Indian out after two losses and the world No 1 in the semifinal already, but it should be a confidence boost for Prannoy, who qualified for the season-ending tournament competed among the year's top 8 players for the first time.
The Indian had a steady start against Axelsen, who had given away just 5 points in the first game the day before. He stayed close to the Dane on the scorecard initially before he built his lead and even as Prannoy played catch, the world No 1 swept away the final string of points to take.
On the change of ends, Prannoy was a lot more assertive in his play but the momentum was still with Axelsen. He was down 6-10 at one point and it seemed like Axelsen would not need a third game. But he regrouped and fought back even as Axelsen seemingly lost his rhythm completely, committing a slew of errors after taking an 11-8 lead at the interval. Prannoy pounced in these moments and soon took the lead and maintained it. He needed three game points to force a decider and he got it as his opponent kept missing his lines.
The decider started closer than the first two games, with both staying neck-and-neck and Axelsen catching up every time Parnnoy built a lead. But the world No 1's uncharacteristic errors - a couple of long serves and miscues - meant that Prannoy could attack his way to create more chances. He stayed calm even when Axelsen kept chipping at the deficit at the back end and eventually sealed the deal on his first match point.
Earlier in Bangkok, Prannoy had gone down fighting in three games against Japan's rising star Kodai Naraoka, and later on Thursday to China's Lu Guang Zu. He had forced a decider in the first two matches as well, but had lost both in the third game by narrow margins on the back of some nervy errors. But perhaps free from the pressure in a match that had no bearing on the tournament, he pulled on a giant-killing act he is well known for.
Even in a dead rubber, beating the world No 1 is no small ask. Axelsen has lost only TWO completed matches this year - to Lakshya Sen in March and Loh Kean Yew in October. In between that, he went on a 39-match unbeaten streak, a new record in men's badminton.
It feels fitting that Prannoy ended his season with a memorable win over a higher-ranked player, even if it doesn't exactly count for silverware - it's what has defined his 2022 season.
He started the year ranked 26th but has broken back into the Top 15 for the first time in four years after a consistent and largely injury free season. He may not have 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 also qualified for the BWF World Tour Final for the first time, this despite being the third-ranked Indian behind Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen, which saw him stay out of India's Commonwealth Games squad. But if the Prannoy of 2022 is anything to go by, the 30-year-old is primed for a big season in 2023 - which includes the Asian Games and the start of the Olympic qualification cycle.