‘Olympics, the driving force during pandemic’

One glimpse at Sai Praneeth’s badminton practise and workout sessions at his academy in Gachibowli is enough to give you an idea about his intense preparation for his maiden Olympics stint. Interestingly, only four Indians have qualified for the Olympics set to be held in Tokyo in July this year.

While PV Sindhu and the 2019 World Championships bronze medallist Sai Praneeth are set to represent India in the women’s and men’s singles respectively, Rankireddy and Shetty have qualified for the men’s doubles event.

Despite less than two months before the big event, Praneeth is all gung-ho about his chances at the quadrennial event. For the moment, however, Praneeth is overwhelmed by the devastation the second wave of the pandemic has brought around him.

“These days, mobiles are incessantly showing messages like ‘Hope you and your family are safe’, ‘Hope your family is fine’, ‘don’t step outside’, etc. That just goes to describe how scary the scenario has been,” he explains, although he quickly adds that all his dear ones are doing fine.

Keeping his spirits high

The country had entered its first COVID-19 lockdown three months after Praneeth wedded Swetha Jayanthi in December 2019.

“Living in such uncertain times has been difficult and frustrating. No one ever imagined such a situation would arise. We couldn’t train or participate in many tournaments; in fact, we don’t even know whether championships would be conducted or not,” says Praneeth. “All said and done, it’s important for us athletes to stay positive and keep ourselves focused.”

Sai Praneeth and Swetha Jayanthi

How has the COVID situation affected his preparation for the Olympics?
“I’ve been preparing well and had a lot of time to do so,” says the 28-year-old who acknowledges that he ticked off his biggest wish list.

“Despite the raging pandemic, my approach towards the game and my prep was not affected, making me forget everything else and focus on the game. In fact, the Olympics has been the only motivating force through these challenging times. I am all geared up and motivated to win the medal.”

Admitting that participating in the Olympics is every player’s dream, Praneeth, who was the first Indian male badminton player in thirty-six years to win a bronze medal in the BWF World Championships in 2019, after Prakash Padukone did it in 1983, asserts that representing the country at the Olympics is one his biggest dreams. “It’s a great honour and pride to represent the country. And I believe it also enhances your responsibility as a player.”

The pressure to stay injury free

Having no major match practise ahead of the Olympics could be a concern for players, but the spirited player believes such a scenario could work in his favour.

“For one, I am not the only player without enough match practice — nobody around the world has been playing. So, I think it gives me an edge to stun or surprise top-seeded players who may be under pressure to deliver,” says Praneeth, adding that confidence is the key to success.

“Once you enter the Olympics, there’s a lot of pressure. But with just one win, we can grow in confidence and that makes a lot of difference.” However, for someone whose career has been plagued with injuries, Praneeth’s biggest challenge is to stay ‘injury-free’. Clearly, he has his task cut out for him ahead of the Olympic Games.

“No matter how hard you need to train, it is important to stay injury-free. I have had recurring injury problems in the past. Obviously, I am focused on my fitness and don’t let my training session burden my body,” says the 2017 Singapore Open winner.

Praneeth appears calm, undeterred by the pressure of performing in the Olympics. “Yes, it is a big event, and yes, there will be pressure to perform. But I have earlier played in three World Championships, so I know what it takes to prepare for big tournaments,” explains the right-handed shuttler.

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