B Sai Praneeth often dabbles in trick shots that muddle the clarity of opponents. He’s not accustomed to trickier riddles outside the court, however, about a microscopic virus. Like when his sixth COVID-19 test in Thailand last month had health authorities term it “unclear.”
“I was in a bio secure bubble for weeks and five tests had returned negative,” he recalls the confusion. “So when they told me on the morning of the start of the second tournament that my test report was ‘unclear,’ I couldn’t understand. I thought what is ‘unclear?’ And how can that mean positive?”
The World No 13 and India’s top singles shuttler, most likely to qualify for the Tokyo Games, was forced to withdraw from the tournament – something he can think of and rue on his return, only after he ensured he was safely back home.
His nightmare was shorn of any complaints at that point, because Sai believed escalating it without completely comprehending what was happening would have jeopardised his teammates’ chances. But now he’s glad that the Badminton Association of India (BAI) sought a clarification from Badminton World Federation (BWF) on why he was not allowed to play despite negative PCR tests, and two antibody positives, signalling that the virus was well past being infectious.
That nothing actually happened in terms of symptoms means he’s not really sure about what to say about his “recovery.”
“I was completely fine before, when I was there and after that. It was our sixth test since arrival in Thailand on the 14th day in Bangkok. They called me in the morning and said the ‘report was unclear.’ I was not told if that meant positive or negative,” he says.
Then the Tournament Control (organising body with Thai health authorities) came and did an antibody test.
“They asked me if I’d had Corona before. I told them there were no symptoms, but if it had been asymptomatic there was no way to know.”
The situation gets muddled thereon.
“They said I was negative for antibodies, which means I was still positive for carrying the virus. I didn’t understand but I was taken to the hospital, and then to the attached quarantine hotel and told that if I showed symptoms I’d be admitted to hospital.”
In case no symptoms showed up, he would be subjected to a fresh PCR and antibody test.
“That last one showed I had antibodies. So I asked them for earlier report from two days back which they had only verbally communicated. I actually had antibodies even in that!”
The rules of the hotel quarantine stated that he’d need to stay put for 10 days after two negative tests.
“But after three days, they said now you can leave for your country!” he adds. Completely stumped, he returned to India.
“My doctor here saw the report and said I possibly had Covid 3-4 weeks earlier. I knew I’d done nothing to break the bubble. BWF also can’t do anything because this was not in their control. But those who tested should’ve told me I had antibodies in the first test,” he says.
This effectively meant not only did Sai miss the second tournament, his roommate Kidambi Srikanth was grounded too.
Left only to speculate on what might’ve happened, Sai says, “most likely I got infected when the rest of them – (Parupalli) Kashyap, Saina (Nehwal), (HS) Prannoy did, at Guru’s (Saidutt) wedding.
“Beyond that I had taken care of myself. But I never tested positive, so it might’ve been very mild, though enough for antibodies. It’s just sad that they didn’t allow me to play like they did Saina.”
It’s the worst sort of stop-start beginning of the Olympic year, but Sai is clutching onto the positives. “On the morning of the first tournament in Thailand, there was chaos after Saina, Prannoy were pulled out, PV Sindhu and I played our matches later without a coach or physio and in a lot of uncertainty, so that ended up bad and I lost. I had prepared well for the second tournament, but then this happened,” he says.
Yet, the 28-year-old is relieved that the worst might be behind him – and he didn’t even know when he was in its midst.
“Right now I’m thinking I was positive at some point and I’m carrying the antibodies. Because there’s always a tension when travelling. It can throw up a positive anytime. Athletes are really scared, and we are supposed to travel in March for tournaments,” he says, pointing to something that is likely to pop up at any event heading into the Olympics – the biggest one.
While there were talks about the elite shuttlers receiving a vaccine ahead of their Europe sojourn (Swiss Open starts on March 3, and is an Olympic qualification event. The All England is on March 17, while the German Open cancelled on Thursday), Sai reckons there might not be enough time for the two doses.
“They’re trying yes, but we won’t get it before leaving because there’s only 2.5 weeks left and we need to be available in India. Even after the second dose we can’t just travel immediately because they’ll have to check for reactions. The Malaysian Open looks postponed, so maybe after we return from the All England,” Sai reckons.
“There’s never been a more bizarre experience in my playing life,” he concludes, bemused that confusion was his clearest identifiable emotion at that point.