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Badminton

Battle of Nerves: Weng Hong Yang edges HS Prannoy in a breathtaking three-game final

Such was Prannoy's fitness that even Hong Yang, seven years younger, had to rely on a delaying tactic. At times, the chair umpire warned Hong for making Prannoy wait, even at 19-19 in the deciding game.

Battle of Nerves: Weng Hong Yang edges HS Prannoy in a breathtaking three-game final
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Happy with a silver! HS Prannoy poses with his silver medal after finishing runner-up to Weng Hong Yang in the Australian Open Super 500 men's singles final in Sydney on August 6, 2023.

By

Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 7 Aug 2023 8:26 AM GMT

We know badminton is fast, intense, and at times insane. But how extreme could it be? Ask HS Prannoy and Weng Hong Yang. At 19-17 in the decider of the Australian Open Super 500 men's singles final on Sunday, it looked like they had the answer.

It was at this point in an intense men's singles final, where fortunes swayed back and forth in each passing rally, Hong Yang, 24, and Prannoy, 31, both rested on their backs, gasping for breath relentlessly after a 71-shot rally came to an end.

Hong Yang, on a comeback trail after being behind for most of the third game, won a crucial point to make it 18-19 in the decider to the delight of the boisterous Chinese fans at the State Sports Centre, Sydney, as Prannoy's return ruffled the net after both players had engaged in a sapping 71-shot exchange of the shuttle.

This moment, coming at the business end of a tournament where both have come through several three-game matches, made both Hong Yang and Prannoy hackneyed. They were exhausted, gasping for breath wildly, forcing the chair umpire to give them space between rallies to settle in.

Breathtaking battle

It was apparent in the way they moved – slowly – in the deciding game. In a match where both players were fast and fluid in their movements, testing one another's sustainability, their movements took on a slow-motion aura as spectators waited to see the winner of the next point with a World Tour title at stake.

After a crisscrossing rally - with the shuttle moving like a shooting star intersecting the lines - both players were seemingly desperate for a kill to finish the game. Eventually, Prannoy's shot went wide, giving Hong Yang his fourth straight point.

Trailing 9-15 first, and then 14-19, Hong Yang fell on his face as a flat smash by Prannoy landed on his backhand back corner. The Indian shuttler was a mere two points from winning the Australian Open title, which would have been his second World Tour title in 2023.

With Hong Yang making unforced errors at the net and perishing under the Indian's smashes, the game seemed to be heading to a familiar ending. In May, at the Malaysia Masters final, their previous meeting also went into a three-setter, and Prannoy prevailed then in 94 minutes.

On Sunday, Hong Yang won the opening game 21-9 as Prannoy looked error-prone. In the second game, Prannoy opened up a 11-8 lead at the interval. At this stage, rallies became longer as both players engaged at net dribbles, and their relentless retrievals meant they had to lose extra calories to win each point.

The sign of a nail-biting finish came at the fag end of the second game when Hong Yang saved two game points even though Prannoy was on a rampage - reaching the first game point chance with an incredible backhand return and the second with a smash - as the match crossed 65 minutes. Hong Yang would pull out one with a flat smash hit which would leave Prannoy crawling, but on the third game point at 22-21, with Hong Yang in haste to wrap up the match, Prannoy drew out an error by the Chinese youngster.

In Sydney, en route to the final, in the pre-quarterfinals and quarterfinals, Prannoy had already bounced back from a game down twice - against unseeded Chi Yu Jen and top seed Anthony Sinisuka Ginting. But Hong Yang fought his way back, forcing a remarkable turnaround in a final that will be talked about for a long time.

Hong Yang - a sly fighter

The Chinese player, who looked dejected for most of the decider, strung together five points on the trot to draw level at 19-19 in a swing of fortune. Forehand reflex, kill from the net and angled overhead smashes were on display from the Chinese southpaw.

But luck swung again, as Hong sent a flick wide in pursuit of taking control of the net. Prannoy was back on championship point, but Hong Yang would soon clip the shuttle over the net to draw level and win the next two to win the decider 22-20, scripting a historic comeback in the summit clash.

As Yang fell on his back, taking the breath of respite and joy of winning the Australian Open - his career’s second Super 500 title, Prannoy looked distraught. A chance to add to his Malaysia Masters title, won at May end, and return to BWF World Championships, to be held between August 21 and 27, would have to wait.

Unseeded Hong Yang will not just be pleased for winning the title, but because of beating the best player in the tournament. On the other hand, Prannoy, world no. 9, will have to go back to the drawing board, train harder, sort out his net control and defensive errors and devise planning for the Worlds before he flies to Copenhagen.

Prannoy, 31, puts 24-year-old Yang's fitness to test

Even as Prannoy, the most consistent Indian men's singles player on the World Tour in the last two years, returned home with his first runner-up finish of the season, his faster movement, improved fitness, a sturdy game equipped with a cross and flat smashes clubbed with the intent of not giving up even when he is behind manifested the fact that he is getting better, even as he gets older.

Such was Prannoy's fitness that even Hong Yang, seven years younger than him, had to rely on a delaying tactic. At times, the chair umpire came out harsh on Hong Yang, reprimanding him for making Prannoy wait in the decider, most prominently at 19-19 in the deciding game.

Prannoy has also been steadily breaking the stereotypes attached to badminton that players beyond the age of 30 struggle to win championships.

Nine times this season, Prannoy lost the opening game and forced a decider, including Sunday's final. Had luck been with him today, he would have won his seventh match coming from behind.

Earlier on Sunday, American Beiwen Zhang, 33, won her second World Tour title, beating another veteran, 34-year-old Kim Ga Eun of South Korea, in the women's singles final. Zhang's last title - India Open in 2018 - was also her first.

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