The enormity of the occasion — K Srikanth beating Lin Dan, K Srikanth winning a Super Series in China beating the best Chinese there is, Saina Nehwal winning the women’s singles title on same day — makes Sunday, November 16, a seminal moment for Indian badminton. But the beauty’s in the details of how the 21-year-old resident of Hyderabad brought down the giant of shuttle to win his maiden title in his maiden attempt in a final against unarguably the greatest player.
Before heading out to China, K Srikanth was put through a additional paces by coach Gopichand where he sharpened the youngster’s cross-court smashes. Srikanth boasts of a belligerent down-the-line smash — not too different from what youngsters in badminton love to unleash on the court. However, it was that crosscourt drilled into his system over a fortnight, that helped him unsettle the Chinese Olympic champion, aiding in making life difficult for the favourite, who was jittery about his recuperating ankle.
Gopichand calls this one of the highest quality matches he’s witnessed an Indian play, and not merely for the result. “Anything predictable would not have worked against Lin Dan. Srikanth played a lot of tosses pushing Lin Dan to the back of the court, and he also had some crisp net shots, which ensured that he didn’t allow Lin Dan to settle into any sort of rhythm,’’ the coach explains.
It was the first two shots in fact that set the tone, reassuring Gopichand that Srikanth was looking good to impose his game. Before he opened up a decisive 15-12 lead in the opener, Srikanth also played the acutest of net dribbles – like a high jumper’s trajectory – catching Dan wrong-footed and gasping to reach in what was a statement made on court.
“At the net, he kept the shuttle under constant pressure,” he adds, a ploy that bemused Lin Dan and coupled with the drone-like threatening tosses put him in the middle of the court and in a tight spot of indecisive bother.
“He was smart tactically, and the only fear was Srikanth would get carried away. But where it mattered, he attacked, and he could also stay calm in the end,” the coach adds. In fact court-side coach Sia Dutt sensed at 17-16 in the second that his charge could jangle himself out of a winning position, and urged him to calm his nerves. It helps that Srikanth, one of the most attractive shot-makers in India, is instinctively wristy and experimental, having in his repertoire some unconventional strokes with which he mixes angles.
Mixing it up
“Anyone with a set game has no chance against Lin Dan. But Srikanth mixed it beautifully,” Gopi said admiringly. It would be naïve to think that Srikanth completely out-witted Lin Dan, but Gopi believes his ward could summon the answers as counters. “Lin Dan had figured out what he was trying, but Srikanth changed his game immediately, and that was great to see. That’s the only way to play him, and try and beat him,” he added.
An overwrought mind would have faltered, but not Srikanth’s. “He’s a smart guy, he learns quickly, and has the shots to execute what he’s thinking clearly.”
Though the smash and dribble are quite fetching strokes, it was the chess-like ploy to make Dan move laterally back and forth and then kill at the net that denied the Chinese any rhythm. Controlling the game with cross-courts was a trick Srikanth had gone to China with.
That he could employ it against Lin Dan speaks of his big heart that could mix adventure and equilibrium on the biggest days of his life.