Kidambi Srikanth searches for old spark
India’s chief coach Pullela Gopichand says Srikanth has to play “really well” to nurture hopes of qualifying for the Olympics.Updated: Jan 22, 2020 15:24 IST
When Kidambi Srikanth burst on to the international scene, a combination of attack, deception and sublime net play made him a joy to watch.
In November 2014, he made heads turn in Fuzhou, China, when he brought down the biggest name in badminton—two-time Olympic and five-times world champion Lin Dan—in his backyard, at the China Open Super Series final. To beat “Super Dan” before a partisan crowd was a daring act, and the then 21-year-old Srikanth made a big statement, becoming the first Indian male to win a Super Series title.
Two years later, he again faced his idol at the Rio Olympics. Srikanth put up strong resistance before bowing out in the quarter-finals 6-21, 21-11, 18-21. The skill and fight Srikanth displayed in Rio showed he was ready for a long reign at the top echelons of world badminton. The following year, he dominated the circuit with four Super Series titles in a calendar year. Riding on the success, Srikanth became world No. 1 briefly in 2018 and India started to look at him as a prime contender for a medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
Then the fall started, a steep one at that. An inexplicable turn of events has seen the Guntur boy hurtle from one defeat to another, and he has now reached a point where even qualifying for Tokyo appears a mountain to climb.
Currently placed 26th in the Race to Tokyo rankings, Srikanth will have to turn things around big time to get into the top 16, which will guarantee him a ticket to the Olympics. Even Parupalli Kashyap (21st) and Sourabh Verma (22nd) have fared better in the one-year qualification period that ends on April 26. B Sai Praneeth, currently placed 11th, is the only Indian who looks comfortable to seal a Tokyo berth.
The first-round losses in the Malaysia and Indonesia Masters this month have come as a blow to Srikanth’s chances, and to cover the distance he needs some big wins. Unfortunately, he suffered a first-round defeat at the Thailand Masters Badminton.
In 11 tournaments Srikanth has played during the qualification period, he has lost in the first or second round in eight. His best was a semi-final in Hong Kong, where luck played a big role. His first-round opponent and world No. 1 Kento Momota pulled out and Chinese Olympic champion Chen Long retired hurt in the quarter-finals. Still, Srikanth could not make the most of it, losing to Lee Cheuk Yiu of Hong Kong in the semi-finals.
India’s chief coach Pullela Gopichand says Srikanth has to play “really well” to nurture hopes of qualifying for the Olympics. “If he does very well he has a chance, but for that he has to play really well. He has been working hard on his game and I am confident he will make a comeback soon,” says Gopichand.
Srikanth has struggled with niggles. He took a break to recover from a knee injury in September and decided to skip the ongoing Premier Badminton League to focus on Olympic qualification. If last year was agonising as Srikanth tried to regain form, the Olympic year has begun with pressure piling up.
The good thing is he no longer carries niggles and is physically fit, confirms Gopichand.
Also, there are enough tournaments to make a dash on the home stretch. There are four BWF Tour events (Super 500 or higher)—All England, India Open, Malaysia Open and Singapore Open—and three Super 300 events (Spain, German and Swiss). Except India Open, where he reached the final in 2019, he will not have big points to defend.
To progress to the later stages of major tournaments, Srikanth needs to stop worrying about Olympic qualification and regain that freedom in his game, feels national selector and former coach Vimal Kumar. “The mental state he is in, we don’t know. He must be putting himself under a lot of pressure—that could be a factor when you are going through a slump, you do more and more training. He needs to analyse that. He needs to get the joy back in his training sessions and should not go through (them) mechanically,” said the former India coach.
Srikanth’s game is built on his finesse at the net, where he has outsmarted even Lin Dan and Chen Long. Control at the net allows him to dictate the pace and play his attacking shots—smash, reverse slice, etc. Not one for long rallies, Srikanth has always been eager to finish off points, although that has led to a suspect defence at times.
“He has lost confidence in his tumble at the net, dribbles, and needs to get that back. He needs to be at the net early and dominate there and then go on the attack. When someone counterattacks, he is becoming vulnerable. He needs a lot of work there,” said Kumar.
In Srikanth’s case, the poor run has stretched for too long, almost two years. He hasn’t lost only to big names, but to rank outsiders as well, denting his confidence. When he reached India Open final in March last, he was fighting for the title in a BWF Superseries after a gap of 17 months.
“When you have more of these defeats you start asking yourself what would happen. Now since he is not in the top eight, he is running into top players in earlier rounds. There are different opponents, lot of players younger to him and it is tough at the top. But I still feel his game, his quality of strokes, is much better than many of the players he is losing to. Somehow he has to find these things back,” said Kumar.
Senior national selector Arvind Bhat said Srikanth’s fitness levels are low and that is stopping him from going all out.
“Between 2014-17, he was an explosive player and had some unorthodox shots with which he just blasted through. He could hit some unbelievable shots from out of position and overhead (shots) he was very tricky. He was also physically very fit,” says former international Bhat.
“When you are physically not fit, it affects you mentally too. You don’t believe you can last long rallies,” he said. “Once you get to the top, and become world No 1, people start to figure you out. You have to match up, be physically fit and adapt.”
Bhat feels Srikanth still doesn’t have the ability to play long rallies, and the way the game has changed, he needs to be ready for matches lasting an hour-and-a-half.
“He likes to finish rallies quickly. In today’s game, if you see the top guys—Momota, Chen Long, San Won Ho—they play long rallies. The first thing is to beat the opponent with fitness, by making him run around rather than hitting some spectacular shots.”