January 7, 2017 5:52:50 am
It was three months after PV Sindhu’s historic silver at Rio and around the time she was shaping up to win the China Open. Early that same week, India’s men’s singles players HS Prannoy and Ajay Jayaram had fought hard in their respective matches but gone down to higher-ranked opponents.
Twitter’s a shabby place to be on with several grinches with half-baked knowledge throwing nasty darts about, and on a day you lose a match, it can really grate on the nerves. One such got stuck into Prannoy, who had narrowly gone down to Chinese talent Bin Qiao and taken to social network to mull over the close defeat, adding #Ingoodshape, for that’s how sportsmen tend to feel when they are on the threshold of a good zone. The unsolicited advice came in the form of a counter #NotiInGoodShape, questioning why men’s singles wasn’t really picking up in the country, and a curt reminder: “You guys have been given all the privilege you need, so you should do well!” Prannoy bit the bait — and got into an argument which was never going to go his way on a day he’d lost.
Looking back now — on a day he’s scored his third audacious win for Mumbai Rockets, against Wing Ki Wong of Awadhe Warriors, Prannoy lets it rip: “People don’t follow the sport closely. They’ll sometimes say stuff that really hurts us because we know how much effort we’re putting in, in training. People only see title wins, and there’s no credit given to men’s singles players even after there’s six of us in the Top 50. They don’t understand it’s tough, and we’re trying very hard. Competition’s rough at the topmost level, but it’s difficult to convince people that we too are working very hard. Sindhu, too, was working as hard four years ago, but it took a medal for people to realise. The same could happen to men’s singles, but till then we don’t need to be told rude things as if we’re doing nothing.”
It’s not just the verbals he’s unleashing, HS Prannoy has been in brutal form on court, letting the full might of his attacking game befall his opponents. Prior to Vincent Wing Ki Wong, it was Korean Top Tenner Son Won Ho and then compatriot Sameer Verma, a Super Series finalist against whom he’d not won very much. “I knew if I allowed Sameer to find his touch game, I wouldn’t be able to beat him. I wanted to show aggression, I was over-aggressive in fact. People are afraid of me when I’m angry,” he said, clearly having used Hulking out as a strategy. Against Wong, he’d merely conserve energy, and ensure that he played well in the crunch 8-all situations.
India’s men’s singles shuttlers have remained in the shadow of Saina and Sindhu, and realise that they will need to show consistent spark if they have to demand extra attention from coaches.
“The girls are doing well, so they deserve all the attention. We have to prove ourselves,” he says. In the league, Mumbai Rockets are a rare all-India men’s singles team with Ajay Jayaram playing the first singles — probably the lightweight amongst all the players. There’s doubles superstar Lee Yong Dae who serves as inspiration to the franchise, but as such Ajay and Prannoy have been helping each other out, drawing up strategies for the other and sitting courtside too.
Unexpectedly and filled with players mostly underrated despite being smart picks, Mumbai find themselves at the top of the table having won all their ties and the Indian men’s singles duo has chipped in regularly helping the doubles in accumulating points. In their first match against the fancied Delhi Acers with World No 2 Jan O Jorgensen and 3 Son Won Ho, the two Indians would pull off upsets, and feed off each others’ confidence. “That first win was very big and it boosted our confidence. Totally unexpected,” Ajay says, adding that after years of travelling on circuit together, all of India’s men’s singles players have learnt to help each other. On court, Mumbai benefitted. “I’d never played Jan O earlier, but Prannoy had beaten him and passed on important tips which helped me win,” he adds.
On Friday, pitted against India’s top player K Srikanth, Ajay would stick it out and bring his all-court game (and net-touch) into play to start well for Mumbai. He would lose 10 points in a row at one juncture, but would trade the kills for longer rallies and score his first ever win against India’s No 1. Srikanth relies on his movement on court and depth of his smashes, and Ajay was sharper at the net, also picking most of his smashes, to beat Awadhe in Lucknow. “When we saw the team list on auction day, I wasn’t very sure, but we’ve jammed well,” Ajay would say. Two days after Prannoy got trolled, Ajay copped his own share when he was told he ought to retire if that was his ‘best.’ He’d take it in his stride responding with, “Found a true fan. Some inspiring words to take me through the weekend.”
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