There was a moment in the first game of the decisive rubber of the Thomas Cup semi-final when it looked like India would go out. HS Prannoy took a tumble lunging at the net and needed medical attention on his ankle. He grimaced, in obvious pain; then got up, shook himself off and went on to win the rubber, and match, for India - and script history - for the second day in a row.
India had made it to the Thomas Cup final for the first time ever. The Indian team on the sidelines, dancing before match point and rushing on to the court after with a flag, underlined the significance of the win.
Prannoy, the former world No 8, now ranked 23rd in the world, was third choice in singles as per the rankings. But this relatively lower ranking proved to be an advantage in itself... it meant that India's fate was in the hands of a virtual veteran.
At the other end was Rasmus Gemke, who like Prannoy, had clinched the final rubber for his team in the quarterfinal against Korea.
Whether or not Prannoy's injury played a part, Gemke clinched the first game 21-13 when Prannoy hit a shot into the net, another in a series of unforced errors. But the tables turned in the second game and how. Prannoy stormed off to an early lead and built it up to a solid 11-1 heading into the mid-game interval... a sign that the injury was not a major setback. His willpower has always blazed brighter than his constant physical hindrances. He was attacking and earning his points with his entire body on the line.
It all came down to the final game after the pair split the first two in a lopsided 21-13, 9-21 contest. In the decider, in one of the most important games in Prannoy's career, he stormed to a sizeable lead, grabbing 4 straight points before Gemke got on board. However, the Indian had set the tone with the second game and sealed the tie with a backhand cross court that looked simple only because he made us expect it.
Achievement Unlocked �� for India ���� at #ThomasCup2022
And the REACTION is priceless ��
- SAI Media (@Media_SAI) May 13, 2022
The Indian team, which had never progressed past the semifinals in three attempts in the competition's 73-year history, fought back to beat 2016 champions Denmark, the first European team to ever win the event.
But for Prannoy to get the chance to be in charge of India's fate, the other parts of this team had to fall in place. Simply put, India had to win the first doubles and second singles.
Lakshya Sen put his best foot forward, but against world No 1 Viktor Axelsen, it was not going to be easy for the young, newly-minted India No 1. It was always going to fall to the experience of Kidambi Srikanth and Prannoy in the singles. It was Sen's high ranking that made having this back-up plan possible. It was yet another in a series of events that put India on the verge of history. He lost 13-21 13-21 but not before some brilliant badminton, including a video game like 62-shot rally that the Indian won.
After Sen's loss, the onus was on Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty to get India on the board, to live up to their tag as one of India's best doubles pair in a while. They did just that with a passionate, thrilling, loud and hugely important 21-18, 11-9, 22-20 win over Kim Astrup & Mathias Christiansen (but not before squandering five match points, two in the second game). In hindsight, that extra game added to the script of the two three-game wins to follow. No easy wins in the semis, right?
Next up was former world No 1 and current India No 2 Kidambi Srikanth, against world No 3 Anders Antonsen. With Srikanth, you never know what to expect. He overcame what seems like a customary blip he often faces to win 21-18, 12-21, 20-14. It felt like a microcosm of his game - jump smash sealing game point, sudden lapse, finding the touch again. In a team event, he delivered when it mattered, he gave India the lead and kept to the realistic plan of a win.
Up next were the rookie doubles team of Krishna Prasad Garaga and Vishnuvardhan Goud Panjala. They won the selection trials and earned their place, but the No. 45 ranked team didn't have the staying power for this level.
Denmark had split their world number 9 pair of Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen in a strategic move and it worked here as they went down to Anders Skaarup Rasmussen and Frederik Sogaard 21-14, 21-13. The semi-final was level once more, and it was now headed to where it always had to... a thrilling finale.
At the start of the semis, Prannoy had tweeted "This is it" with Sen's photo. About six hours later, it was he who ensured that this indeed, was it.