World Championships: After seven losses to Kento Momota, HS Prannoy gets his revenge

HS Prannoy breaks hearts for a living. On Wednesday at the Tokyo Gymnasium, those broken hearts belonged to the stoic, silently accepting Japanese spectators, who watched home contender Kento Momota reduced to helplessness in a 21-17, 21-16 loss, to being just a gravel patch that had come loose off the tarmac, around which the Indian smoothly glided before racing ahead. Causing the biggest upset of the World Championships pretty early, Prannoy ousted the beleaguered second seed, to earn himself a pre-quarters match against fellow Indian, Lakshya Sen.

That Sen might prove trickier than Kento-san wasn’t particularly established prior to the match. The Japanese had been a World No.1 for more than 100 weeks – almost unbeatable at one point – and had defeated Prannoy seven times, and lost never.

History’s burden can weigh you down in strange ways, and the former automaton’s unreal precision in earlier matches going back to 2013, where his tosses and soft drops to the front court always punctured Prannoy’s hopes, couldn’t be shrugged off because there was a change of the calendar nine years later.

To Prannoy’s credit he didn’t doubt himself one bit the few times Momota threatened to break loose, closing in at 13-12 in the opener. He even cut down on the balled fist roar, gesturing in the struggling Japanese’ direction. Like he’s been all season, Prannoy stayed calm, executed a plan almost to perfection, and moved so smoothly around the court, he always had enough time to trick and outwit an opponent, whose street cred was built on endless retrieving in rallies and not leaving the shuttle, but who has been clearly struggling in recent years.

Still, it took Prannoy 54 minutes over a two set scoreline, and patience lay in careful construction of each of those winners. The plan given Momota was playing everything to Prannoy’s forehand, was to return cross. With a fair amount of venom, when peppering the World No 2 southpaw’s backhand. There was some added shoulder when the smashes went cross, an accelerated whip too, as they travelled deep. He yo-yo’d Momota front and back, but that was more to keep him guessing and unsettled at the net.

The howitzer cross winners, vrooming past Momota’s right peripheral vision, would demand he go across his body for the backhand, though he was often chasing the wind. Frustration was writ large on his face, as every net chord tippled over, even a reflex low defense grazed the line.

Prannoy had trained for endurance to deal with the slow courts, he would later talk of the absolute control he wielded. “On when to push for points, and when to even lose them,” he said. Momota stayed in the hunt, but just enough to drive him into desperate errors teased by how gettable it all was, even though his attack simply didn’t get cracking at all. There were a bunch of cross court smashes from Prannoy – his underrated forehand and shoulder coming into play on the cross shots rather than the backhands he’s known for.

Though in one wicked instance, a reverse sliced backhand where he locked his forearm, went straight just when Momota had come to expect it to go cross. But it was that sort of a day, when Prannoy attacked at will, simply because he believed he was playing well.

Momota in his prime never feared trailing because he had the control and speed to rush to the finish. But now, low on confidence, he looked haunted when Prannoy’s cross courts left him sprawled on the playing floor. His opponent, whose ability to shred a reputation has never been in doubt – he’s beaten all the top names of the day, on the other hand, was riding his confidence and self-assurance that’s come from backing his own talent, buying into his own genius, scoffing at comparisons with other’s careers and knowing intrinsically that fitness-permitting, he has every shot in the book – and its doppleganger deceptive double, to outsmart the best in the world.

Someone like Kidambi Srikanth floats in and out of that confidence zone. A Lakshya Sen knows he has to commit to a scrap to prevail. A Sai Praneeth might not be able to stall an opponent or call his bluff through a single explosive patch. But Prannoy has all of those qualities, and a poised mind to pace matches that follows the process, for failure can’t sting him now after all these years.

Momota – or his ranking and reputation – had expected to stalk and spook the Indians in the lower quarter of the draw, though the players themselves might well have believed he was imminently beatable. The Thomas Cup triumph might not have piqued sponsor interest in a shuttle-ignorant country, but it’s infused in Prannoy, the man who believed India could win, immense confidence. The Japanese former two time World champ merely bore the brunt.

The road ahead

While Momota couldn’t have run into anyone as dangerous as Prannoy, one suspects Prannoy would feel the same about Lakshya Sen. The bronze medallist from 2021 is nicely warming up for his second go at the medal, and is known to eye finals, nothing less. He won India Open, and the Commonwealth Games, and winning titles is something that’s been lacking in giantkiller Prannoy’s curriculum vitae.

No Indian coaches are expected to sit for the pre-quarters and it will be an exciting clash, as both these players can think on their feet, and happily plot on their own. One is cerebral and pickled in experience, the younger one is clever and gritty, a magic mix that can’t go wrong. Sen leads 2-1, but Prannoy is fresher after not having to play the Commonwealth Games. His biggest scalps have invariably come earlier in tournaments when he’s not exhausted after a tough week.

Seeded 9 and coming off a title, Lakshya Sen will count as a scalp for Prannoy who said his goal is looking to playing “one more round” each day at the World’s. For the Almora man, Prannoy is just the right kind of seasoned players whose will and resolve he likes to take down.

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