And as the Israeli came away with his career’s biggest win on the opening session of the badminton competition at Tokyo 2020, it was obvious why the Olympics is considered a stage as much for the underdog as for the stars.
In the context of ranking and record, this should have been Praneeth’s match. Ranked No.15 to Zilberman’s No.47, and bronze medallist at the last World Championships, the Indian, having won their three past matches without losing a game, would’ve looked for an unfussy start to his campaign.
Instead, nothing quite worked for him. He moved on leaden feet and Zilberman was quick to seize his chance. The men’s singles Group D match was over in 40 minutes, Zilberman taking it 21-17 21-15.
“It wasn’t going my way and I couldn’t do anything. The first game I was dominating initially, but then it went away from me. I didn’t play 100 per cent, I couldn’t think. I felt under pressure. I need to pick myself up for the next match,” said Praneeth.
His opponent, playing his third Olympics, celebrated what he called his biggest moment.
“This is the biggest win of my career. I was well prepared, because I’d lost three times to him,” said Zilberman. “He’s a very good player. His results are better than mine, but I’m happy I managed to play my best game today. Hopefully I can continue.
“It was a very hard match. It needed a lot of focus; because it was a bit windy; if I’d lost a bit of focus, I could’ve lost five points in a row, and he would’ve won the match. The key was that I kept my focus till the end.”
Zilberman accepted that the two contestants had reacted very differently to pressure, and surmised that the experience of having played two previous Olympics titled the scales in his favour.
“This is my third Olympics. Maybe this was the one advantage I had over him. He’s a World Championships medallist. I want to be there, but I’m still not there. Hopefully I can get there.
‘Different Event, Different Energy’
“It’s about doing your best. This is a different event, different energy. You know everyone is watching you. If you cannot control it, you will feel it during the game. This gives a lot of emotions, and those you can make you play better, or you can feel afraid and play worse. At the European Games I won a medal. Because of those feelings, I managed positive energy, I was feeling good inside. So here hopefully I can do the same.”
At 32, Zilberman isn’t getting any younger, but he says his style has evolved to make him more efficient.
“I’m playing smarter and more tactical. When I was young I used to be play a more physical game. Now I’m playing tactical, and I play fewer shots, but creating greater pressure. This is my advantage.”
The Israeli is not out of the woods yet, for next up is Dutchman Mark Caljouw, world No.19.
“My next opponent is also a strong player, he’s higher than me in the world rankings. I just want to do my best. I don’t want to look too far ahead. Badminton’s not a popular sport in Israel. Definitely this result might bring more attention to it.”