Dramatic Thomas Cup semifinal against Denmark symbolizes Indian men's badminton's redemption arc

Prannoy celebrates with the Indian team after sealing India place in the Thomas Cup final for the first time. Shi Tang/Getty Images

In sports, as in classic storytelling, two of the most favourites tropes are 'David vs Goliath' and 'Redemption Arc,' with unpredictable narratives thrown in. India's historic Thomas Cup win - badminton's version of the World Team Championship - in May this year had a bit of both.

The cinematic elements were all there - first-time finalists India against defending and 14-time champions Indonesia. Spunky inexperience vs seasoned veterans. And a sensational, and a tad unexpected, 3-0 clean sweep. David smashing Goliath.

There was the redemption arc too -- less than a year ago, the future of Indian men's badminton looked shaky. Only B Sai Praneeth had qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in singles, and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty in doubles. By the end of the year, there were two Indians on the World Championship podium in Kidmabi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen, but that had had an asterisk in a long, pandemic-and-Olympic season.

Before Indonesia, though, came Denmark.

A Denmark with world No 1 Viktor Axelsen and world No 3 Anders Antonsen. A Denmark that had become the first European team to win Thomas Cup, breaking Asia's long dominance of the sport.

And this is why, India's five-match semifinal, and not the historic 3-0 final win, is ESPN India's Match of the Year (2022). Specifically, the deciding fifth match between both team's lowest ranked players - HS Prannoy vs Rasmus Gemke.

Ahead of the fate of the tie falling on Prannoy and Gemke, the first four matches had seen some see-saw results:

  • Lakshya Sen, the newly-crowned India No 1, going down to the almost-invincible Viktor Axelsen.

  • Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, India's best, regrouping after squandering five match points to push for a gritty 22-20 third game win.

  • Kidambi Srikanth, former world no. 1, holding his nerve in a three-game battle with Anders Antonsen.

  • Krishna Prasad Garaga and Vishnuvardhan Goud Panjala, rookies and winners of the selection trials, losing in straight games.

"We have never played in a more intense match," Satwiksairaj told ESPN. If this was the pressure of the second match, imagine that of the decider.

The stage was set for HS Prannoy and Rasmus Gemke: the latter holding a 2-1 lead in the head-to-head

The storylines in this final match of five were layered - A semi-finals in balance, a deciding third game, a mid-match injury to Prannoy, an animated team in the dugout... Prannoy's history of injury layoffs, of falling short in big moments in the past. Of India never winning a medal in the Thomas Cup's 73-year history because there had never been a complete men's badminton 'team'.

Mind you, Prannoy himself was a different player back then. Not the world No 9 of today, but world No 23 who wouldn't make the cut to India's Commonwealth Games squad.

But if there is one thing about Prannoy, it's that he will give it his all. And this time he was not alone, like on the BWF tour, but backed by a loud, young, team who he believed in him. In fact, Prannoy had even created a group chat called 'Thomas Cup is coming home', before heading off to the tournament.

Faith is the name of the game for Team India at Thomas Cup: Prannoy on first-ever final run

"Srikanth and I had a discussion a couple of months back saying we just...we just need to try. We never try fully and need to give it our all to go ahead," Prannoy told ESPN. "I spoke to Lakshya too...we shared a room when he was at the All England Open and I told him we really need to try at this year's Thomas Cup. He said, 'Yes we need to try bhaiya, this looks like the best chance for us.'

The best chance now all came down to the 29-year-old. And he did not miss his shot.

Gemke clinched the first game, where Prannoy needed a break for medical attention to an injured ankle, 21-13. After the change of ends Prannoy, who had a number of errors in the first, sharpened his attack and took off to a solid 11-1 heading into the mid-game interval, clinching it 21-9. This one-sided game was all he needed to believe again and he took the third 21-12 with a sensational display.

He had also won the fifth game a day before in the quarterfinal against Malaysia as well, in a match that followed a pattern similar to the semifinal. That itself had sealed a historic first medal for India at the Thomas Cup. But this young Indian team aimed higher and followed it with a historic first final and first trophy. A trophy won with a 3-0 win over 14-time champions that ensured that the Indian men's badminton team will never be seen as underdogs again.