HS Prannoy brought in a lifetime’s grit, an unapologetic attack and 68 minutes of tactical brilliance to the court as he completely out-thought, out-manoeuvred and outplayed defending champion Viktor Axelsen 13-21, 21-15, 21-16 in the quarterfinals to secure a coveted medal at the World Championships. He finished with a standing ovation from the Copenhagen crowd that couldn’t help but appreciate the incisive way in which their home hero was humbled by the brilliant Indian.
First Prannoy lulled Axelsen into believing he had a grip on this quarterfinal, as he took his time to adjust to the cadence of the rallies and fell back in the opener 21-13. Then the Indian Top Tenner started turning the screws, and teased out one error after another, from long, languorous rallies to build up a lead in the second set and exert pressure of trailing on the Dane. At the Japan Open last month, when Prannoy stole a 21-19 opening set from Axelsen, he had sowed enough seeds of doubt. On a furiously exacting Friday at the World’s with Axelsen under pressure at home, Prannoy could reap the benefits of leaving Axelsen with a weary, wary feeling that day in Japan, having sent across the message that he had shots in his arsenal to deeply trouble him.
Making the big man retrieve really low shots at the net, and sending off enough deep smashes to leave him unsteady and unsure at the back of the court, alternating this theme with untiring persistence, Prannoy neatly built a demon into Axelsen’s head. And then when the errors came in casual and desperate, he turned the knife in the third.
India had just suffered the shocking exit of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty to the Danish pair of Astrup-Rasmussen and were in danger of leaving the World Championships without a medal for the first time since 2010. But deep in Axelsen’s heart and in the nervous crowd, they knew that Prannoy could make his life in this edition terribly difficult, and pick that medal. The Indian took his time in long rallies, picking Axelsen’s snappy attack – once with a 360 pirouette but often with side dives – to chomp into the Dane’s reassurance that his range of shots were adequate. They weren’t. And after the second set where he made too many errors, or was driven to err by the Indian, he was left telling his coaches that Prannoy was reading all his attack, and he was running out of options.
— BWF (@bwfmedia) August 25, 2023
Central to Prannoy’s success was his command at the net. There were fewer fancy strokes, just hard nosed tight dribbles and counter dribbles, and no amount of menace of Axelsen’s famed smashes made him back off from the net. Because he was unflappable at the net and stealing errors from there too, Axelsen was forced to go for the extravagant attack, and progressively tiring, the 29-year-old would smash into the net often or drift wide.
At 4-5 in the second, Prannoy missed a cross smash to seal a 40 shot rally, but rest of the resurgent set, he revved up on the straight, no-holds-barred smashing attack. Axelsen is tall and has a mighty defensive range on the flanks, but it must’ve been an intimidating sight to watch Prannoy add ounces of power with each subsequent stroke in a rally as he approached the net on followups.
The Indian went from 7-7 to lead 11-9, with a wonderful inside out return of serve. His precision on the shots to the back court out-scored Axelsen’s. The hand speed increased mightily after the break, as he hit the next gear, and his error-free attack kept eating into Axelsen’s confidence.
By 17-10, Axelsen was shrugging and slumping at back to back errors. The mammoth 47 shot rally at 19-14 though broke his back. Both sent brave yet exhausted shots back and forth, but it was Axelsen who dumped a tired smash into the net. Prannoy’s criss-cross attack would further unsettle Axelsen to reach set point at 20-14, and the Indian would show he had the legs to run a third, on the final point of the second. Prannoy’s diving defense to the right at the net was followed by scurrying to the left, drawing out a cross error. Viktor was vulnerable now.
— The Olympic Games (@Olympics) August 25, 2023
Prannoy had joked after beating Loh Kean Yew, the 2021 World champion incidentally, that his physio would need to work into the night to prepare him for the next day’s fight. But it has been three seasons of prepping for this moment, for this long coveted World’s medal by the most consistent player amongst Indians.
Battling injuries and health issues, Prannoy had watched it all come together this season when he finally won his first Super 500 title at Malaysia. But it still needed that medal at World’s to cement his greatness in 2023. The decider had to be stolen from Axelsen.
69th National Film Awards 2023 complete winners list: Rocketry, Alia Bhatt, Kriti Sanon, Allu Arjun win big
69th National Film Awards 2023 Live Updates: Alia Bhatt-Kriti Sanon celebrate the win, Allu Arjun says ‘honored and humbled’
By the time the decider rolled in, Axelsen was smashing wild, and it was evident the big smash was his only go-to. Prannoy’s defense absorbed the ferocity of the
fast exchanges, and some of the midcourt smashes. Prannoy was controlling the front court from the second set, in the third taking a 11-6 lead, he made the net his own, and forced Axelsen to go for the lines. At 13-8 the Indian went for a body attack, while his shot at 14-9 grabbed a snatch of the sideline. So sure was Prannoy of the linesman call being wrong, he staked his final challenge on it. Unlike against Loh, Prannoy didn’t see the need to go for deep deception. His power packed attack – straight and along the lines – sufficed on the day, as the lead burgeoning. Axelsen sent three shots long in the closing stages and was a defeated man in his mind by now, out of ideas and out of firepower.
The home contender was watching his title slip by, and erred again on the net to give Prannoy match point at 20-15. Prannoy would smash wild at 20-16, a rare intemperance. But would calm himself down to send a straight whip along the line, as Axelsen in no position to return on that angle, drifted it wide. Prannoy had chiseled his win, one scrape of the wood at a time, and one of India’s finest shuttlers finally had his deserving Worlds medal at 31. Thai Kunlavut Vitidsarn who also beat Axelsen at the start of the year with his control defense, plays Prannoy next. He might need more than defense to stop the Indian, who currently looks like he can solve any puzzle, and has the unbridled power and precision to go the distance.
There was little to no celebrations in the end, though Prannoy had waited long to medal from his third quarterfinal appearance. He knows he has a gold in him, the fist pumps and roars can crescendo two days later.