Striving to master "closing out" narrow games, Indian shuttler B Sai Praneeth is entering his maiden Olympics "a bit worried" about returning false positive for COVID-19 in one of the many tests he might undergo in Tokyo. (More Badminton News)
Praneeth, who had ended India's 36-year-long wait for a men's singles medal at the world championship with a bronze in 2019, has reasons to get anxious having returned false positive during the Thailand Open in January.
Forced to pull out of the tournament, a re-test showed a negative result.
"You know what happened to me in Thailand, it was a false positive and I couldn't play. Since it happened to me so I am a bit worried," Praneeth, a 2017 Singapore Open champion, told PTI in an interview.
"Olympics is the biggest sporting event. Before you could just focus on your game now there are so many things: testings, so many protocols, you have to think about all that and then practice and play.
"But I am vaccinated now. A lot of effort has been made to conduct a safe Olympics, so hopefully, things will be okay. There is no guarantee but we need to be positive and focus on the game."
The pandemic had hit the Olympic qualification process, forcing the cancellation of most tournaments in 2020 and early part of the 2021 season, but Praneeth was not losing his sleep over making the cut.
"I had already figured out that even if all the qualifiers are cancelled, I still will make it. So I was relaxed in a way," he said.
However, the cancellation of the last three qualifiers at Singapore, India, and Malaysia means he will have to head to the Olympics without much match practice. Will it impact performance?
"I couldn't play in Thailand and only played Swiss and All England. Then the last qualifiers were cancelled but we can't do anything about it, everyone is in the same situation."
The Indian players will depart on July 17 to participate in the upcoming edition of the Games, which was delayed by a year due to the unprecedented health crisis, and will get underway on July 23 under strict COVID-19 protocols.
Guilty of often losing matches from winning positions, Praneeth said he has been paying special attention to closing out narrow games as part of his preparation for the showpiece.
Far too many times, Praneeth has been accused of lacking patience or rushing through to get ahead in the crucial moments, which ended in heartbreaking losses against top players.
"I don't know if it is a mental thing or not. Sometimes you anticipate something and go for a shot but it doesn't turn out as you wanted. But we have tried to address this issue," Praneeth said.
"Coaches have been trying to create match situations like when it is 18-all or 19-all. I am focusing on how I have to play and win those moments, so I hope it will help."
The 28-year-old from Hyderabad will carry the onus of breaking India's long-awaited Olympic medal quest in the men's singles badminton when he competes in Tokyo.
It won't be easy as he has to get past the likes of Kento Momota, Viktor Axelsen and Anders Antonsen, players against whom he has a dismal head-to-head record.
Does it bother him?
"No, not at all," pat comes the reply from the world number 15.
"I know what I played in world championship and after that, in China Open I had a three-setter against Anthony Sinisuka (Ginting) in quarters, then another China Open I had a close game against Anders Antonsen.
"The thing is whenever I play back-to-back events, my fitness goes down, so I might not have beaten them, but I know my game and I am confident of beating them."
Chief national coach Pullela Gopichand, too, has spoken about the need for Praneeth "to put that little extra momentum into his physical strength" to cross the line at Olympics.
Praneeth said the prolonged break and cancellation of tournaments due to the pandemic gave him time to work on his body and skills.
"I had a lot of time to focus on different aspects of my game, where there is scope to improve. I could work on my endurance. Sometimes, I can feel in the practice if I am not good enough but now I know I am in good shape, so there is nothing to worry about."
With the focus mostly on Rio Games silver medallist P V Sindhu in the run-up to the Olympics, tags like "dark horse" and "surprise package" have been used to describe Praneeth.
"It feels good if someone believes in you but I don't give much attention to what is being written or said about me. I generally don't take it to my mind and try to focus on my job at hand," he signed off.