At his best, Lin Dan is the greatest badminton player of all time and deemed invincible by all contemporaries. But even at his worst — when injury makes him wobble — the five-time World Champion is considered shuttling divinity’s Lazarus, the man who can rise from the dead any moment of the match.
Only two men have snatched matches from the twice Olympic champion since the 2012 London Games — Jan O Jorgensen and Sony Dwi Kuncoro. And China has not seen him lose at home in a decade. So when Lin Dan, recovering from an ankle injury, turned up at Fuzhou this week, it could only mean one thing: Kidambi Srikanth of India stood no chance even if he suddenly found himself in the finals of the Premier Super Series at China.
Except, Srikanth upturned all logic and calculation by beating Super Dan 21-19, 21-17 at the spaceship-like futuristic stadium in eastern China. In achieving that, he even pushed to the back pages Saina Nehwal’s heart-warming return as champion after she beat Japanese Akane Yamaguchi 21-12, 22-20 for her eighth Super Series title.
Srikanth, a brooding 21-year-old from Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, who grew up watching his father manage many acres of farms that grew paddy, had climbed the rankings ladder of men’s singles painstakingly to World No.16 and done nothing more spectacular than winning India’s first Grand Prix title in men’s singles at Thailand two years ago.
In fact, he reluctantly started playing singles a few years ago, and needed to be told by coach Pullela Gopichand that making the national doubles semis in U-19 did not constitute ‘ambition’.
On Sunday, the laidback shuttler confidently stuck to no fixed plan whatsoever (“It’s the only way to beat Lin Dan,” coach Gopichand said), improvised on his unorthodox strokes, and scored a tactically brilliant and historic title triumph for himself and India.
Considered India’s most talented player for some time now – talented, not always consistent – Srikanth had told his coach in his characteristically crisp fashion that he would only wish Gopichand on his birthday Sunday, if he could beat Lin Dan. And the Hyderabad coach, though happy at how his ward had been playing, wasn’t expecting to be wished.
Till the very last point, and given the number of times the world had seen Lin Dan defy defeat eventually, Gopichand waited nervously for the Chinese champ’s revival. “I jumped when Srikanth got the last one through. There’s disbelief because you never expect Lin Dan to lose, he always makes a comeback,” the coach said.
Srikanth had given the coach many reasons to be optimistic over the 45 minutes. He was commanding in the way he started with assurance (“not tentative at all taking the lead in the opening set for someone playing his first Super Series final of his career”); he was making Lin Dan run, catching him off-guard at the net; and he was playing his shots unhindered till the end.
“But you know how Lin Dan can turn it around. He might be coming off an injury but you never write him off,” the coach persisted an hour after he’d secured his biggest win as mentor. “Biggest, I don’t know, I’m just very, very happy,” he said.
Only one Indian has beaten Lin Dan – and that was when the Chinese was a rookie. “I’d beaten him 15-4 or 15-3 in the decider when he was very young. But over the years, he’s turned into quite a monster. He’s better, faster and more versatile than anyone else,” Gopichand said.
His assessment of what Srikanth achieved was unabashedly complimenting. “Srikanth dominated him early, but Dan was reading his game. That Srikanth changed his tactics and used the right ones at the right time, and kept calm makes it a brilliant win,” the coach added. Srikanth’s poise, his 6 feet frame, and tactical nous mirrors Gopi’s, who was the last Indian to win a comparable title – the 2001 All England.
It was an intuitive call based on the same mental maturity he saw in the boy that made him convince Srikanth that he would be better off at singles. “Good thing about him is he doesn’t think too much, he’ll do what he’s told. And if he’s told nothing, he won’t do anything which can be a problem,” the coach half-joked.
Moving to the Hyderabad academy was a choice Srikanth made, following elder brother Nandakumar – a far more energetic, outgoing and driven youngster. While Nandu had the spectacular jump smash and all the ambition, Srikanth dawdled about till the coach saw his malleable mind and wrists, and wide range of strokes and decided to put an end to doubles, the closest the reticent boy chose to being a wallflower while playing badminton.
“He only speaks to Gopi about his game. The maximum I’ve heard him speak about sport is about Roger Federer in tennis. Otherwise, he trains, sleeps, watches movies alone, and never discusses the game with me. I was told by our parents that I had to look after my kid brother at the academy, and I don’t clutter his mind about the game either. When I spoke to him last night, I knew he didn’t need to be told what to do against Lin Dan,” brother Nandakumar said.
“He liked looking at big stadiums, but as a kid he was very quiet and would follow his mother around everywhere. Studies happened alongside, but it’s not like badminton was life-and-death for him. He’s turned into a good player now, no?” father Krishna said. A spectacular understatement if there ever was any, about one of the greatest wins in Indian badminton.