Prannoy's persistence pays off in grand style with first Worlds medal, Axelsen upset

HS Prannoy stunned world No. 1 Viktor Axelsen to earn his first BWF World Championships medal. Shi Tang/Getty Images

To those who have watched HS Prannoy's career for a while, two factors stand out:

One: He is resilient, a fighter who rages and rises against the odds, whether injuries or high-profile opponents.

Two: He often falls short at crucial moments, whether it's a shuttle just outside the line or finishing just outside the podium.

This may sound like an oxymoron but it is what it is. Prannoy battles against the best, he pushes matches to the distance but he has mixed results.

Like at the World Championships, for example. He is the only the second Indian man after the great Prakash Padukone in the 1980s to reach three consecutive quarterfinals. That speaks of consistency. But he also doesn't have a medal to show for it, unlike Kidambi Srikanth, Lakshya Sen, B Sai Praneeth.

Until August 2023.

Until HS Prannoy won his first World Championship medal by accomplishing the most difficult task there is in men's badminton today - beating Viktor Axelsen at a major competition. Axelsen, the defending champion, reigning Olympic champion, world No. 1 and the undisputed best player of this generation.

And Prannoy did it in some style, coming from a game down, 13-21, 21-15, 21-16, in 68 minutes. Playing in Axelsen's backyard with a partisan crowd. At 31 years of age, when singles players are already thought to be veterans. He is already in the best season of his career, and now he has topped it with his biggest medal to date - a senior World Championship medal. The fighter did not fall short this time.

How exactly did Prannoy achieve this?

To put it simply - persistence and composure trumping prodigious talent.

Prannoy was dominated by Axelsen at the start of the contest, going 2-9 down and needing most of the first game to find some sort of rhythm. But once he got it, you could see the Indian growing into his game - the backhand finding its mark, the down-the-line winners reaching the corners, the defence in long rallies staying strong.

The start of the second game was much closer and there was a superb 40-shot rally early on to indicate that this was going to get more gripping. There were errors, forced and frustrated and Prannoy went into the interval with a slender but crucial 2-point advantage.

And then there seemed to be a strange lapse from Axelsen as Prannoy pulled ahead to 17-10 with some quick and easy points, a mix of cheap errors and good winners. The Dane tried to regroup, clean his errors and played some clever points - as is his wont. But a terrific, all-court, 47-shot rally ended with Axelsen sending a tired shot into the net at 19-14 and from then on, a decider was inevitable. As is Prannoy's wont.

The third game was back as a battle from the very first point - shots all over the surface, great defence and Axelsen getting a jump smash just right and raising his hand in celebration already. He knew he had a fight on his hands, he knew his opponent was not someone who would go away quickly.

Things got nervy for the Danish top seed and he was actually slow to react at times. There were wayward shorts and full-contortion rallies and smashes that found the very edge and others that missed completely - with Prannoy heading into the break with a 11-6 lead.

Axelsen didn't have answers while Prannoy was making no mistake and constantly getting his returns, staying in points and forcing errors. The last half saw Axelsen step up the attack and do all the things he does so well only to be matched by an unflappable Prannoy, who was finding his edges, lines and corners precisely.

Strangely, it was Axelsen who was getting visibly frustrated with his errors. There's got to be something said about the non-medallist being the calmer one compared to the champion. In fact Prannoy, who often pumps himself up with roars and cheers on every point, started to be the less expressive one as the match progressed. Even when he lost a point, he looked nerveless.

And when he actually converted his match point - when Axelsen missed his line yet again - the celebration was almost mellow. He pointed to his head, went to his coaches P Gopichand and Gurusai Dutt, raised his arms.

Prannoy has been playing some of his best badminton since last year's World Championships, but he won his first BWF title only this May at Malaysia Masters and then went on to lose his second final at the Australian Open earlier this month after an epic, intense three-game battle.

'Epic, intense three-game battle' is essentially the experience of watching HS Prannoy play. Even his last match against 2021 world champion Loh Kean Yew - incidentally the last player to beat Axelsen at the Worlds - was a marathon thriller. And to have recovered from that and make it two back-to-back world champion-beating performances requires a special kind of persistence.

And Prannoy is nothing if not persistent.

Like the proverbial tortoise, he has slowly but steadily come ahead. From his erratic performances as a youngster, in part due to a series of injuries and health issues, to falling down the rankings and struggling for funding - to now being India's No. 1 player in singles. From sporadic wins over Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei, not amounting to trophies - to beating Axelsen for his first Worlds medal.

The persistence of Prannoy has paid off. And even at 31, this feels like just the initial half of a great story. He will next play last year's silver medallist and third seed Kunlavut Vitidsarn for a place in the final. They've played only once before, with the Thai star winning. But with the kind of form and confidence Prannoy has, do the odds matter when there is a veteran fighter at the other end?