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Badminton Worlds: Prannoy finds his ‘zone’ to beat Axelsen

The ninth seed won 13-21, 21-15, 21-16 in a contest that lasted an hour and eight minutes to assure himself of a medal.

Thirteen thousand people had turned up the Royal Arena in Copenhagen to witness their local stars, especially Viktor Axelsen, to come out victorious on Friday. Perhaps the finest shuttler of the current generation, Axelsen is the benchmark in men’s badminton.

The reigning world and Olympic champion, world No.1 and top seed, the 29-year-old was the favourite to lift his third world title, that too in front of his adoring Danish crowd, who were vociferously backing the six-foot four-inch tall shuttler against HS Prannoy from India.

The men’s singles quarter-final started according to the wishes of the Danes with the defending champion winning the first game to take control of the match. But there was a twist in the plot as Prannoy staged a sensational comeback to stun the crowd by beating Axelsen and causing the biggest upset of the tournament.

The ninth seeded Prannoy won 13-21, 21-15, 21-16 in a contest that lasted an hour and eight minutes to pick up his third win in 10 meetings against the reigning Olympic champion. By doing so, the 31-year-old entered the semi-finals to assure himself of his first-ever medal at the World Championships.

“Finally, I have a World Championships medal. Before coming for the World Championships, we had a week’s time and all we did was practice few shots. I didn’t try anything new for this tournament,” said Prannoy in the mixed zone.

By virtue of the win, Indian shuttlers extended their incredible run of returning from the annual showpiece with at least a medal. It was a streak that began in 2011 and has shown no signs of ending.

After winning the toss, Prannoy chose the side of the court which gets affected more due to the air conditioning drift. The logic was he, perhaps, would have the more advantageous end as the match would draw to a close.

But the Indian seemed nervous to begin with, handing a 9-2 lead to Axelsen through some poor play. The Dane was clearly the better player, using his smash to good effect. That combined with better court coverage, range of shots, the acute angle of his smashes meant that the local shuttler bagged the first game quickly.

Playing against the drift, the Indian world No.9 put up a much better display in the second game, challenging Axelsen stroke-for-stroke. All of a sudden, as the rallies got longer, Axelsen’s shots started going wide in the second half. Prannoy capitalised on it to pull out a lead, hammering a few down the line smashes to win crucial points and take the match into the decider.

For the first time since the start of last year’s World Championships in Tokyo, Axelsen had lost a game, let alone a match.

The rallies, with both players showing some brilliant defence, kept getting longer in the third game. After a tight start to the game, the Indian started pulling away to put the defending champion under pressure.

Down 6-11 at the interval, Axelsen was making uncharacteristic errors. He tried getting the crowd behind him but Prannoy remained calm and used his experience to not rush into the points. He defended well against Axelsen’s smashes and pounced on chances when they presented themselves.

Eventually, Prannoy found himself with five match points and he claimed the contest on his second to enter his first-ever semi-final at the World Championships. In the last four contest, he will face the third seed Kunlavut Vitidsarn.

“Some of the shots I played, I tried yesterday (against former world champion Loh Kean Yew of Singapore) and it worked but didn’t work today. I got whacked a couple of times. It is important to have the guts to try something new. Learning new shots is a never-ending process, no matter how much you play so that you are able to surprise opponents every week. I might come up with something new next week,” said Prannoy, who has been in sensational form this year.

The vociferous crowd didn’t trouble Prannoy too much either.

“(For the crowd) I zone out,” said the shuttler. “Nothing else is in my control. I was not thinking anything else, not aware of what was happening around me. I was in the zone today, particularly after the second game.”

Earlier in the day, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty suffered a heartbreak when they were knocked out, losing 18-21, 19-21 in 48 minutes to 11th seeds Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen of Denmark. The world No.2 pairing were looking to win their second successive medal at the Worlds following their bronze in Tokyo 2022 but fell short to lose their sixth match in eight meetings against the world No.11 pair.

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