The year of Kidambi Srikanth
Kidambi Srikanth has had a fantastic run of form this year.
Since his loss in August to then World No.1 Son Wan Ho of South Korea, in the quarter-finals of the World Championships in Glasgow, the Indian badminton player has lost just one of the 13 matches he has played. His wins include the back-to-back Super Series titles in Denmark (22 October) and France (29 October), taking the number of his Super Series titles this year to four, and career tally to six. His victories this year have come against players such as Olympic champion Chen Long (Australian Open), world champion Viktor Axelsen (Denmark Open), and Son Wan Ho (Indonesia Open).
Along the way, Srikanth became the only Indian, and the fourth player ever, to win four Super Series titles in a calendar year. The other three are Lin Dan (China), Lee Chong Wei (Malaysia) and Chen Long (China).
He is slowly becoming the man to beat in world badminton.
Srikanth is naturally agile. It helps him move to the net faster and finish with a tap kill. And his speed has been the key to his success and dominance on fast courts such as those in Denmark and France, says coach Pullela Gopi Chand. “In the kind of fast conditions that he’s won in, Srikanth is clearly the world’s best player,” says Gopi Chand.
Srikanth also has a lethal smash.
But, and perhaps more importantly, he has also become stronger mentally, which has helped his game on court. “He has developed the ability to stay cool under pressure,” says former India player Arvind Bhat, who is one of the Indian team’s travelling coaches. “In the quarter-final versus Shi Yuqi (in France), for instance, Srikanth lost the opening game 21-8. An earlier Srikanth, and most players in fact, would have panicked. But he managed to turn things around.”
In fact, in the last two weeks, he has scored three comeback wins—against Axelsen in Denmark, Shi Yuqi in France, and compatriot H.S. Prannoy, again in France.
The other big change has been in Srikanth’s physical fitness. Just hours after his Denmark win, Srikanth landed in Paris and had to get down to business. Sure, both finals (in Denmark and France) may have been horribly one-sided affairs that took a little over 30 minutes to finish, but that alone isn’t reflective of the toll this exertion takes on an athlete’s body. Unlike, say, tennis players during Grand Slams, badminton players have to play six days at a stretch during a Super Series.
“I’m actually a little bit surprised myself,” says Srikanth. “The way we have been training for the last eight-nine months, I guess it’s working for me. I just need to continue this way and keep working hard.” Under Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo, who joined the Indian team in March, training sessions at the academy in Hyderabad have changed dramatically. Two-hour training sessions interspersed with long gaps have turned into 4 gruelling hours on court and plenty of running exercises with water breaks. The idea is to develop endurance.
Gopi Chand, however, thinks he needs to develop more patience. “Specially on slower courts. Hanging in there during sticky situations—that’s going to be a real test of his fitness and maturity,” says the national coach.
Comparisons with Gopi Chand and Prakash Padukone may be unfair, but in his career as a professional badminton player so far, Srikanth’s achievements have been tremendous. Padukone’s All England title (1980) came at a time when badminton as a career was unheard of. Gopi Chand’s title came 21 years later. And for both players, the crown in Birmingham remains their biggest claim to fame, when they were aged 25 and 28, respectively. At 24, Srikanth seems to be on a roll.