Lakshya Sen and HS Prannoy have played each other three times in total - all this year. In the clash of rising star vs seasoned veteran, Lakshya holds a 2-1 edge... but Prannoy won their last encounter.
On Thursday, the two Indians will play each other in the most important clash between them so far - at the 2022 Badminton World Championships. The third-round match between the last two remaining Indians in the men's singles draw is a blow for the country - as it means there is likely only one singles medal to be won. However, it will also be a cracking contest between two in-form Indian players, with contrasting styles.
Lakshya is the ninth seed, has a bronze medal at the last Worlds (on debut) and is coming off a gold medal-winning run at the Commonwealth Games.
Prannoy is unseeded, has never won a senior World Championship medal and couldn't make it to India's CWG contingent as he was the third highest ranked player in men's singles.
Yet, the match will be one among equals. Both Thomas Cup-winning teammates have been in superb form for most of the season.
Lakshya may be the seeded player but Prannoy enters the contest having overcome second seed and former champion Kento Momota in a match that showcased the best of the 30-yr-old Indian. And that his current rank of 18 in the frozen BWF system does him absolutely no justice.
Against the former two-time world champion, in a Tokyo stadium supporting the home favourite, Prannoy had all the answers - astounding angles and smashing shots - in a 21-17, 21-16 win. It was his first win over the Japanese star in 8 meetings and it was achieved by the aggressive physical and mental game that Prannoy has consistently fine-tuned this season. Of course there has to be a small caveat; Momota is still on the comeback trail after the car accident that upended his career, but this was also a tactically superior match from the Indian.
It was a comparatively easy victory for Lakshya, beating Spain's Luis Penalver 21-17, 21-10 - just like his first round match against Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus (21-12, 21-11.) The easy games are probably a relief - having played the CWG just over 2 weeks back. Yet, the bronze medallist from the 2021 Worlds will know the real test is to begin, a test he is very well acquainted with. A look at the three matches between the two Indians this year highlights the trajectory they have been on; rise for the 21-year-old, resurgence for the 30-year-old.
At the India Open 500 in January, Lakshya fought from a game down to win 14-21, 21-9, 21-14 in the quarterfinals, and went on to lift the trophy at his home tournament.
At the German Open Super 300 in March, Lakshya won 21-15, 21-16 in the quarterfinals and went on to stun Viktor Axelsen in the semis; still the only-court loss for world No 1 in 2022. However, the 21-yr-old Indian lost the final.
At the Indonesia Open Super 1000 in June, Prannoy dominated Lakshya 21-10, 21-9 at a time when the senior was fresh off the Thomas Cup momentum. He went on to reach the semis of the Super 1000, losing to Zhao Jun Peng (who beat Kidambi Srikanth on Wednesday).
This head to head only serves to reinforce that it will not be a straightforward third round clash at the Worlds - where the winner is the sole hope of a singles medal for India. It will also be an interesting clash of playing styles.
Lakshya can defend so well, it's almost offense - while Prannoy attacks with full flow. The Indian teammates know each other's game very well and both will be confident of victory. Contrastingly, Lakshya's CWG gold and Prannoy's CWG absence will be a big motivating factor. The result will likely come down to small margins, both on the court and in the mindset the duo employ.
The pair have been rattling off moments of brilliance over the last season; the breakthrough Worlds bronze that started Lakshya's ascent into the Top 10, the fightback from injuries & inconsistency for Prannoy, and of course their combined effort to win the Thomas Cup title in their first ever final.
Despite their difference in age, 2022 has been a pivotal season for both of them. A World Championship medal can only add to that. Prannoy came close in 2021, where he upset World No 9 Ng Ka Long and World No 10 Rasmus Gemke, before going down to eventual winner Loh Kean Yew in the quarters. Lakshya, at the other end of the draw, lost his semifinal to Srikanth.
It's a shame for Indian badminton that they have to meet so early in the 2022 edition. But no matter how this match ends, it'll only further the growth of men's badminton in the country.