Back on court, feeling the adrenaline
Kidambi Srikanth felt nothing less than an ‘adventure’ competing in an international tournament—Denmark Open—after seven months, while table tennis player G Sathiyan had ‘goosebumps’ putting the first few balls on the table on Friday in his first match in the Polish Open.Updated: Oct 18, 2020, 12:54 IST
It was a week that saw some of the top Indian players get back to their normal world—travel, hotels and the feel of the adrenaline rush of top-flight international sport.
Kidambi Srikanth felt nothing less than an ‘adventure’ competing in an international tournament—Denmark Open—after seven months, while table tennis player G Sathiyan had ‘goosebumps’ putting the first few balls on the table on Friday in his first match in the Polish Open. Sourav Ghosal and Joshna Chinappa also made winning returns on the squash courts at the CIB Egyptian Open. As the pandemic brought sport to a complete halt in March, Indian athletes have struggled to resume training and get back to top fitness. Getting matches under their belt has been a big problem. They have now started to venture out and test themselves.
World No 32 Sathiyan travelled from Chennai to Warsaw and cared little about the freezing weather as he turned out for his club—Sokolow S A Jarsoslaw—in the Polish league hours after his arrival and began with a win against Szymon Malicki. “I had goosebumps playing my first match. There were hardly 10 people in the stands and they were playing digital drums. The environment was totally different,” Sathiyan said from Poland.
“I was rusty and nervous but I found my rhythm towards the end and am happy to pull it off in five games. It was a challenging period to reach here, getting the clearances, Covid-19 tests. I reached Warsaw late at night after a 14-hour fight and then another four hours on the road. It is very cold. My team asked me whether I would prefer taking rest the next day but I just wanted to start.”
During the lockdown, Sathiyan was in two minds whether to travel outside Chennai for the national camp. He started with a robot as his partner at home, and when restrictions were lifted, he was able to train with coach and former international S Raman. Since international TT had not started, Sathiyan searched for other options to get quality match practice. The opportunity to play in the Polish league came in June-end but it was another struggle to get the clearances.
“Everything was unsure during the lockdown. Everyday things were changing. It was as if we were up against an opponent whom we have no clue about. But I wanted to play at any cost. I don’t want to compete in the Olympic qualification tournament next year without any match practice. I trained well but playing a match is like a second skin for us. It is a different feeling. I enjoyed the pressure, the ups and downs in the match. It was actually surprising because my opponent has been playing in the league for two months.”
Sathiyan has plans to play in the Japanese league, or train with the Polish national team. “I have only 3-4 matches to play because the league is coming to an end.”
In Odense, Srikanth too had a different feeling in his first outing. Though he lost an intense quarter-final (20-22, 21-13, 21-16) against second seed Chou Tien Chen on Friday, there were glimpses of his old form that had eluded him for more than a year. He impressed in his wins against Toby Penty and Anthony Ho-Shue in the first two rounds.
“I’m playing after a long time. It’s like an adventure. This situation is something new. I’ve never been away for this long, and I’m happy with the way it went,” Srikanth, now world No 14, said after his first match.
The last time Srikanth played was at the All England where he lost in the first round. There was no end to his struggles on court. The seven months away from the game seemed to have served him well. He looked sharp and played his attacking game. He was at ease with his tight spinning net shots and was patient in controlling the rallies.
“I’ve not had much match practice. But I think I’m slowly getting back. It will take some time, as there are no tournaments after this one.
“There will be a pause in the season, so it might take time to get used to the match feeling,” he said.
During the break Indonesian coach Agus Dwi Santoso would just tell Srikanth to ‘believe in yourself’. “I am training with a new coach and it helps us understand where we are and how to prepare us for the next season. When you play a top player like Chou you have to be at the top of your game. I feel happy the way I have played here.”
In fact it was a crazy start to international badminton with the fittest players on tour unsure of what to expect from their body and from their opponent. Nothing exemplified this more than the match between Lakshya Sen and Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus.
Lakshya had comfortably sailed past his first round against world junior No 1 Christo Popov. He took the first game against Vittinghus who was cramping but kept fighting.
Teenage Lakshya drowned himself in a slew of errors in the second game. Vittinghus had enough reserves to keep pushing Lakshya who was now out of breath. Vittinghus finally won 15-21, 21-7, 21-17.
“Our strategy was on fitness and making Vittinghus play,” explains Lakshya’s father and coach DK Sen, who was guiding his son on the courtside. “His opponent was struggling but Lakshya was making so many mistakes. He is still learning. Physically he did well and told me that he was not lacking in fitness.”