Big losses, epic disappointments and public meltdowns—the way they happen in sport and get amplified—can crush spirits. When at age 22, Kidambi Srikanth missed out on the opportunity to make the semifinals of the Rio Olympics after briefly, but bewitchingly, bothering the great Lin Dan, he reacted in the worst way possible. He knew it was there for the taking, and knew even more acutely he had missed it. He took off for 10 days, went home, went worryingly quiet, and got mentally bored of his sport, turning scarily “unemotional” as coach Gopichand puts it.
Such upheavals are difficult for ‘sport-civilians’ – ordinary fans and casual spectators – to comprehend, and through all the felicitations and celebrations that followed PV Sindhu’s silver medal, Gopi was aware of a young man, who’d missed out, getting distant and drifting. There’s redemption to be had at the World Championships a season later – in August this year. And unsurprisingly, moments after Srikanth won 21-10, 21-19 to beat Kazumasa Sakai of Japan for the Indonesian Open Premier Super Series title, the coach’s happiest thought was how he had persuaded the 23-year-old’s parents to relocate from Guntur to Hyderabad which would go a long way in managing the young talent’s emotional well-being. “His parents are moving next month,” he said visibly relieved. A small but crucial piece of the jigsaw was falling into place to go with Srikanth’s third Super Series crown – two years after the Indian Open, and 31 months after he first came to notice in China beating the greatest Chinese.
A day before the final, the Indonesian media was intrigued by the rudraksh locket that dangled off Srikanth’s neck. He is a young man whose belief systems are still to crystallise and evolve, and he would disarmingly say, “My mother believes in all this. I stay away from home, but she told me to wear this for tough times when I’m alone. And I can’t not listen to my mother.” There was another shield, he reckoned, apart from his family, coaches and support staff, which had begun protecting him from tsunamis of disappointment. Ironically, it was that colossal letdown from the quarters of the Olympics.
“It was my first Olympics, I was playing Lin Dan and he hadn’t lost a game in the Olympics in like eight years. It was a close match, one of biggest matches of my career for sure,” he told the gathered media in Jakarta in a bare-all purge, bolstered no doubt by the fact that he had finally won something big. “I was handling the pressure well, but unfortunately I lost. I’ll be in tough situations but I know no match can push me to that limit like the Rio quarters. There’s 12 Super Series tournaments each year, and now I know, even if I lose one final, I’ll have another one coming up. I lost in Singapore, but those losses ensured I sit here today a winner in Indonesia.” There was a cheque of over Rs 48 lakh to go with the announcement that K Srikanth was back, a re-forged Terminator.
Fast and furious
Earlier, he had taken 36 minutes to quell the qualifier from Japan. Sakai didn’t win much, but he had made the finals on the back of clever understanding of court conditions in Jakarta. On Sunday though, the sideways drift was taken out of the equation with the A/C switched off, and both players had to adjust their net games – the taps and lifts making a mockery of their week-long mastery of the drift. Sakai, who trains in Indonesia, and counts his net game as a weapon, was downright shabby on what will count as a very rough day for the World No 46.
The quick-footed Japanese, though, watched his errors rub off on the Indian who looked like he’d allow his rhythm to be ruined contagiously. Srikanth would rely once again on his go-to attack to cover the 6-11 deficit in the second game after pocketing the first easily – as Sakai erred generously. Srikanth would level at 13-all. Given all the drama of the week – and the titanic battles of Indians – HS Prannoy namely, Srikanth would spare his followers any anxiety by wrapping up the match quickly helped along the way by net cords.
The Indian would roar and raise his arms in God pose, and also see the quick-to-be-gleeful coach Mulyo Handoyo run on the court and raise Srikanth’s arm like at the end of a boxing bout, flaunting his latest winner to the adoring Indonesians who remember him as the man who shaped their legend Taufik Hidayat. Indonesia had taken a liking to Saina Nehwal since 2009 – she won here three times – and Srikanth got the adoration from a crowd that cheered him wholeheartedly, reviving their admiration for Mulyo. “It’s the best crowd ever,” Srikanth said. “They worship players here, and they don’t need an Indonesian. They just choose their favourite and make life hell for his opponent. I think they liked me,” he added, an understatement if there ever was one, given the raucous applause he received.
Gopi remembers the radio silence though. “In 2015, there was a phase of immaturity. And then it was difficult to get his intensity up after the Olympics,” he recalls. A small rebellion here, some stubbornness there – mostly on small things like diet and resting – had followed the wonder months of his China and India titles. “It happens a lot to attacking players. Their ups and downs are more pronounced. One moment they are on a high, and then things go down miserably. They have their moments, then make a set of mistakes and come back. But the beauty of Srikanth’s situation is all this is happening at 24 – the peak, the slip-up. At 28, it’d have been difficult to deal with,” the coach explains.
Heading into Tokyo in three years’ time, Srikanth’s natural aggression and unorthodox strokes as well as temperament of three Super Series titles make him the bloke to watch out for. “It is definitely a much-needed title after losing the final at Singapore (to compatriot Sai Praneeth). It’s been a long time since I won a Super Series. After the Olympics, I was injured for 3 to 3-and-a-half months and out of the game. It’s the longest I was away from the game since I remember starting in badminton. It’s good to win,” he said. “Rio will be easy to forget each time I win,” he grinned.