The image of HS Prannoy breaking down and hugging coach Pullela Gopichand after battling excruciating back pain to seal his maiden bronze medal in Hangzhou was one of the most emotional moments of the Hangzhou Asian Games. It was a culmination of years of toil as the 31-year-old fought against his body and battled inner demons to lead India to a first-ever silver in men's team championships and also ended a 41-year-long wait for a men's singles bronze. (Asian Games 2023 | Badminton News)
"Sometimes people don't know what happens behind the scenes. They don't know what struggle we go through to just play and Gopi bhaiyaa has known me for the last 15 years. He knows my struggles, what issues I had in my career," Prannoy told PTI in a freewheeling interview.
"He knows how difficult it was for me to play that particular match (quarterfinals) considering the conditions, and opponent (Lee Zii Jia). The shuttles were slow, so you had to hang in there for 30-40 shot rallies, so the pain was mentally tough to bear."
Prannoy played with taping and a belt on his lower back under his shirt and dished out a performance for the ages to assure a bronze.
Prannoy could have sealed it in straight games but he squandered two match points to see it almost slip away.
"I could see that disappointment on his (Gopichand) face after I lost the second game because he knew it would get tougher for me to win from that situation. He knows how hard I fought for that medal. So it was a culmination of all those emotions," Prannoy said.
"To have a medal in the Asian Games is not easy. The fact that no one won in 41 years shows how tough the competition is. To eventually have a medal in my hand was an emotional moment for me and him also, because we knew the value of that medal."
For far too long, the man from Thiruvananthapuram has been defying injuries and health issues but never it has been this tough just to turn up on the court.
"It has been the toughest tournament in the last 6-7 years. I haven't played with this much pain in my life, to have such doubt every single point, if it will be possible to push through each point," said Prannoy, who fought blisters in his leg, gut issues and after-effects of COVID-19 to rise like a phoenix in 2022.
"There was a sense of doubt because there was hardly any training due to my back. The physio said that the back won't be able to take more load than a match. So just trust and belief that pushed me through those two weeks.
"There was a lot of responsibility, a lot of people had hopes and I didn't want to disappoint them."
In Prannoy's absence, India lost to China in the team final despite leading 2-0 at one stage as Kidambi Srikanth and Mithun Manjunath couldn't produce the goods.
"Post the semifinal match, the back pain got aggravated a bit and the medical team felt it would be risky to play in the final. It was decided that since there were fit players, like Mithun, who has been playing consistently.
"So someone fresh and able to play 100 percent was a better choice as I wasn't really in great shape."
The experience of going through bouts of pain due to his health issues in the past made it a bit easier to endure the last two weeks, said Prannoy.
"During the COVID time, I had issues with my right rib, which also used to be excruciating pain. I felt whatever comes now will be easier to handle, if I was able to play with that pain, then I'll be able to manage this one."
It wasn't just Prannoy, the entire team went through some tough times in Hangzhou when a few players were down with flu.
"A lot of bad things were happening for us there with three players falling sick. So it was quite scary to see all of a sudden people getting sick.
"So it was a tournament where a lot of things were tested, mentally for me and also for Chirag and Satwik. Chirag was down with flu and to come back from there and win the title, shows how much mentally we wanted to get that medal for the country."
Prannoy had ended a long wait for a BWF title when he won the Malaysia Masters in May and claimed his maiden bronze in the World Championships in August before securing the Asian Games medal.
"This Asian Games was much more mentally tougher because there was a lot of uncertainty all around. The team event helped to have that positive energy. Standing on the podium gave me a lot of happiness and it helped to push through in individual events.
"In World Champions, I had to dig deep from the first round itself. So both were from different scenarios. But to get two of the biggest medals in my career in just over a month is something else, it is something I have never dreamt of."
'Want To Set Template For Future Generation'
Prannoy said he and Srikanth want to leave a template for the future generation about team bonding and competing in team events.
"It takes effort to bring all together. So me and Srikanth are trying our maximum to build it for the next generation, trying to tell them this is how a team event needs to be done.
"Going forward, even if you don't have seniors around, there will be lots of juniors who will come up in the next 4-5 years, so this is what you need to do. Hopefully we can win more team events."