The Escapologist: How calm HS Prannoy pulled the rug from under Loh Yew’s feet

Loh Kean Yew is freshly an ex-World champion, now playing at the Super 750 Japan Open this week. HS Prannoy has no World’s medal to show.

If reputations were stamped on the visage, you wouldn’t be able to tell who was who, if you dropped in for their Round 2 match at Osaka. Neither would you know looking at the four scorelines – Loh leading 17-11 and 20-17 in the first set, and 14-6 and 17-12 in the second – as to who eventually won. For HS Prannoy donned the sport’s trademark Resting Badminton Face, that inscrutable, expressionless look that robs from the opponent, the smug reassurance that he’s ahead. Through this summer of successful forays into top events and the Thomas Cup triumph, HS Prannoy has frustrated opponents by keeping badminton’s non-provoked, unfazed face, while turning tables on them.

It didn’t help in widening the contrast that Loh Kean Yew was particularly aggravated and excitable on the day. Besides trying to psyche up by talking to himself and widening his big dancing eyes, he even attempted to shake off the heebie-jeebies he felt whenever Prannoy closed in, by literally flailing both his arms, hoping the tension would leave his body, with those shaking shrugs. He would get himself into one right state in what was like waving off a bumblebee, except it was Prannoy’s steady humming buzz, not a bee waiting to sting as he won 22-20, 21-19.

Badminton has always been more Borg than McEnroe. Asian legends have maintained such a tight lid on their emotions, that it bordered on aggressive reticence as matches went about with taut facial muscles yielding nothing in terms of inner turmoils or triumphs. Lin Dan barely smiled, and he had enough occasions to. Once in a while, a Jan O Jorgensen would come along to create one right screaming din. But the biggest names conceded nothing, and rarely allowed the opponent a peek into their emotions in their eyes, let alone baring the workings of the ticking brains. Fist pumps, screeches and a face screwed up into Banner-transitioning to-Hulk, rarely worked to rattle opponents and break their games when done as a matter of routine.

Now Prannoy has taken many seasons to arrive at his state of serene poise that neatly veils his inner confidence. Starting out as an aggressive attacking shuttler with the beastial backhand for his party trick, the screaming roar and gnashing teeth would often be in tow. In what is the most recognisable sign of settled maturity, Prannoy now no longer relies on the full-throttle decibel on his most consistent season. Against Loh, the contrast aside, Prannoy used that inner calm to lethal effect against a rampaging opponent.

HS Prannoy (14) HS Prannoy reacts after taking a point. (File)

Loh had his usual speedy attack going – steep, swift and scything, stomping about the court. It’s his style to cover the court with tizzy sprints, and pulp the shuttle with sharp racquet angles. If there’s a method to the madness, it hasn’t been codified into a user’s manual. He simply oozes speed, hits irretrievable looking winners and very many inexplicable errors. A meltdown is around the corner at all times for the Singaporean, though he’s never ill-behaved or bratty nor sullen. But like his gestures indicated, he gets possessed with his own pacy game, and then tries losing the shadow.

Prannoy absorbed the blitz, never lost hope, never hinted he harboured hope either, and went about demolishing the younger rival in the end-games both times – with steady net, and slightly straighter deeper shots than last week in Tokyo. That Prannoy has worked on his game and nurses strategy like fine golden Scotch, to not blindly attack and guzzle down opponents has been known for a while. But Thursday was a perfect example of just how accurately he knows when to go for the kill. When staying back, waiting for Loh’s storm to pass, he would keep that same steady unthreatening gaze that Momota used to wear when his shuttle control was watertight.

HS Prannoy (8) HS Prannoy plays a shot. (File)

The more Prannoy kept his cool, the more Loh found the pressure of nothing-happening creeping on him. No leads were safe, as Prannoy unleashed equally quick winners in short snappy strides, but without blowing bugles or balling the first. So all Loh saw was his own errors piling up as Prannoy chose the passage of play right after the 11-point break 12th point precisely (both times trailing) to step up on the accelerator and rattle off 6 and 7 respective points. Loh didn’t know what hit him, or if he was hit at all rather than his own mind going into a funk, as his self-flagellations began.

That it happened in Set 1 was outrageous. That there was an encore in the second, completely flatlined him at the 17th point. He was like a statue throwing an almighty tantrum with his arms – stuck but screaming. In his closing out winners, Prannoy remained efficient – deep hits to Loh’s corners, the springing Singaporean like Jack chained to his box.

Impressive transformation

Abhinn Shyam Gupta, Indian badminton’s most inscrutable face from two decades ago, who would wear opponents down and change not a line on his face, is impressed. “I see many players go Yaa hoo, Yaa hoo after winning one point. If you are that jumpy, firstly you lose energy. Secondly you need to be calm and balanced from the inside. That’s the inner strength which makes not expressing into a big mental aspect of the game,” he says.

The more Prannoy kept his cool, the more Loh found the pressure of nothing-happening creeping on him. (File)

Opponents have fainted on court, trying to outlast him in the older format, but Abhinn would remain unfazed. His battles with the energy-bubbling Sachin Ratti were legendary on the domestic circuit. “I always won on stamina in the 3rd, so I couldn’t bother to waste energy. But especially against players who rely on speed, keeping a straight unemotional face helps because you stick to your strength, and they have such adrenaline pumping, they begin to get frustrated. Even if they are leading, their energy falls watching you not even mildly affected,” he explains. “Prannoy is in that phase now. I’m sure a big title will come.”

In Prannoy’s case, that calm face has also disguised a pain barrier when he didn’t allow injuries to give away his discomfort – against Gemke at Thomas Cup, or a stabbing pain against Momota last week. Against Loh, Prannoy’s biggest disguise was hiding away the smirk he must’ve felt watching his opponent bobbing about. Knowing, when the board struck 12, he would effect the quietest rampage to overturn that audacious scoreline.

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