Milo’s tale needs a re-telling here. The Greek wrestler from ancient Olympics was infinitely proud of his strength that had made him unbeatable for years. Crossing the woods one day, he fancied slicing a broken tree trunk into two with his bare hand, confident of the power his arms encased. His hand would get stuck in the wedge his enormous strength had scythed as the day faded. A wolf would eat up Milo for dinner.
Kidambi Srikanth hasn’t tasted Milosque giddy success yet – though making three successive Super Series finals ought to feel as heady as it gets at 22. But the young shuttler has betrayed no signs of being vain liked the doomed grappler from yore.
So when he runs into a wolfish Chen Long – Olympic champion and a weighty opponent – he won’t quite get gobbled up, frightfully over-relying on his own strength. But as the two cross paths in the finals of Sydney’s Australian Super Series – India’s best vs China’s current mightiest – Srikanth will need to heed to the story of Milo’s mythic over-playing of his hand as a cautionary tale.
For almost three competition weeks now – that’s 13 of the 14 matches uptill the final on Sunday – the Hyderabadi has leant on his attacking play – an eminently watchable style of badminton – to rack up the numbers that only a few in men’s singles boast: 3 consecutive SS finals. The list includes Lin Dan, Bao Chunlai, Chong Wei and Sony Dwi Kuncoro – shuttle’s biggest contemporary names.
And Chen Long too, a very likeable Chinese champion who can assert his class and size on any game – and who is deceptively multi-faceted in his game (some deception here, some long rallies there).
Commentators – and not flippantly – gushed through Srikanth’s 21-10, 21-14, 37-minute decimation of young Chinese Shi Yu Qi, calling the Indian the most attacking player around on the circuit currently. Fans relish the cutting smashes that can slash through the wind, they cheer the intent to go for the aggressive crosscourt flicks at the first available instance. Short, snappy rallies – and just enough time for angles and artistry at the net.
Srikanth doesn’t scowl – the instinct of offence is all in the feet and the hacking arms and skiving shoulder. But there’s no doubt about the combative Indian’s go-to strategy on a shuttle court: it’s attack and more attack. He uses it to pull himself out of corners or to stamp his authority in no-contests, like the 37 minuter on Saturday. It’s how Srikanth has always played – but more importantly, it’s how the youngster at 19 first processed the path to success in the 2014 title win against Lin Dan on a sombre Chinese day. An unabashed offensive game has served him well, and will catapult him into the Top 10; the young man driving in the knife with two successive wins against World No.1 Son Wan Ho, whose defense the Indian sabred away twice in five days.
Against Chen Long though, Srikanth will need to be alert to Milo’s doomed fate, and exercise discretion in blazing his attack away.
“We know Srikanth scores points with his attack straight away. But sometimes it needs to be held back,” coach P Gopichand had said after the Indian won in Indonesia. From the flying heights, the falls are steepest, the coach reckons. “He will need to adjust his attack to suit the opponent. “It’s about experience,” the coach stresses, making an important point: “once he learns to pull out matches differently, he’ll rely less on solely attacking.”
One part trouble with a no-holds-barred style of wading into battle is sustaining energy, another is the helplessness that attacking players can sometimes feel when opponents start defending stubbornly, and the attack begins to unravel. While Srikanth has won lots, lost little – only the final to Sai Praneeth at Singapore – the patchy phases of his game have given enough hints of why he’ll need to vary his gameplan. Typically, at the start of tournaments in the early rounds, it is easier to go boom-boom-bang peppering opposite courts with smashes, and quick kills.
Stadiums with good drifts suit Srikanth the best with both the tailwinds and headwinds exaggerating the speed. The smashes flow as do the shortish taps at the net he fancies in fast rallies. Australia has tended to be on the slower side though, and as the finals fetch up, Srikanth will have to judge how much he can stake on mere attacking play against the 6’3” Olympic champion, a giant in defense and no mug at reading deception.
“I like the quick points, but I can’t really rely on just attack or say it will always work,” Srikanth had said after Indonesia, reflecting a wise head on those smashing shoulders. “I’ve lost a few matches attacking too much and getting carried away. So I’m slowly learning to judge according to opponents and conditions,” he added.
“As time goes by, he’ll learn,” the coach had said. The time to test him will be on Sunday.
It helps that HS Prannoy beat Chen Long at Indonesia, with his eclectic strokes as well as very measured reining in of offense at the right time. Long is imminently beatable, though he’d be spoiling for revenge and be on his toes against another Indian looking to scalp his head.
Srikanth’s been in some narrow losses against Chen Long, and will back himself to turn the tide. “I have no thoughts about the final, no thoughts about winning or losing. (If it is Chen Long) I’ve played him four or five times. Most times it was close. I played him twice this year, I lost 21-19 or so,” he told BWF in Sydney after a quick semifinal win, even as Chen Long laboured against Korean Lee Hyun Il for 63 minutes.
But the Chinese know better than anyone else that Srikanth ought not to be under-estimated. A wide range of strokes, unorthodox deception, plenty of doubles angles and a net game that’s held some gasping beautiful moments in Sydney, mean Chen Long knows he could meet his match in a title race.
Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu have scored some memorable wins against the Chinese in the last decade and Prannoy pricked a bubble last week against the superpower’s very best. Srikanth is 0-5 against Chen Long, but would want to beat a Chinese in a final like his mentor who picked the All England in 2001 downing Chen Hong. A diminishing Lin Dan was over-powered by Srikanth’s attack in the winter of 2014, but it would help if the Indian is ready to grit it out, stay patient and pounce judiciously in the longer rallies of this India-China face-off on a slow-stew Sunday.