Kidambi Srikanth is trying to get off WhatsApp, though his social media commitments won’t allow him to entirely retreat into his preferred bubble where badminton is played for badminton’s sake. But he finds it insincere to allow anything to be posted in his name as if conning fans that the star is responding himself – so the balancing act is on through the last 6 weeks of silent preparation for the All England.
B Sai Praneeth, meantime, has spent this spring adding to his list of incredible shots; unbelievable blind returns with the precision of an eyes-closed impalement knife throwing artist from a circus. Or simply a jaw-dropping cross-court jump smash – feats of supreme physical agility that are Fabrice Santoro-meets-Toufik Hidayat. There’s one involuntary movement though he’s assiduously trying to avoid – the way he shakes his head when he makes mistakes, a disastrous give-away of terrible body language when all his wondrous strokes are not coming off. It’s exacerbated when his easily identifiable mop-top starts bobbing, betraying an error, admitting that he’s beginning to crack.
Then there’s Sameer Verma – if he’s worked impossibly hard to make 2018 his own, emerging as India’s best men’s singles player, his is the sort of game that will need double that almighty effort to take him to the next level – winning the All England, as he has boldly proclaimed.
He always had rare ability to turn his defensive retrieves into winners in a long rally. Now he can follow up that long rally with a second longer rally – where his speed doesn’t drop and the smash doesn’t lose its sting.
And finally, there’s HS Prannoy. The man with a big game, a bigger heart, he’s overcome debilitating gastroesophageal illness and patched back his body that is prone to injury because of the sheer jolting trauma he puts it through while playing one of the circuit’s most power-packed games.
“Sameer has done well in the last 6-7 months,” says national camp coach Amrish Shinde, adding that the semifinalist at the World Tour season-ender, has improved his game style – getting patient, stronger, fitter and mature in stroke execution. “He’s sharpened his waiting game – improving on defense, so he can defend monstrous steep smashes of very attacking players in longer rallies but also holds the accuracy in repeated rallies, which helps him recover from one long point and follow it with speed and sting in his smash in the subsequent one,” he adds.
Sameer’s perennial problem has been how he is prone to cracking under pressure. “Somewhere he gets stuck,” former international and coach Aravind Bhat, who worked with him three years ago, says, pointing to a lacuna that’ll need plugging.
Srikanth fights uphill battle at All-England
“In crucial moments it’s worrying because it happens in a big, big way. If an opponent catches him, it’s easy to plan because it’s clear he’s cracking,” Bhat adds of the player whose hand-speed on defense makes him unconventional. He also boasts some serious smarts and is level-headed – playing intelligently, a fact his coaches rely on. “He’s always been sincere from start, but now he’s able to deliver in a match-situation. Wins last year have changed his confidence in his own strokes, and a certain percentage of his game he can use to score points off any top player. He’s jovial otherwise, but in training, he means business,” Shinde says of Sameer 2.0, who starts off against Viktor Axelsen.
Srikanth, ranked 8th currently, has learnt from a lean season. Stroke-making abilities or fitness were never his problem. “How to make a match situation happen and deal with different types of them is something no one can teach you. He’s learning that now,” Bhat says, preaching patience to those who get exasperated with what’s happening with the enigmatic shuttler.
Lin Dan went to the 2004 Athens Olympics as top-seed and lost 15-12, 15-10 to Indonesian Ronald Susilo in first round. “These ups and downs happen to the best. Srikanth has at least two more Olympics in him, and few players mature immediately. 2017 was brilliant, and maybe he got complacent. But there’s urgency in him. Luckily fame came early to him – beating Lin Dan, reaching World No 1. Those are ticked off the list, and now he has time to settle. These are his prime years,” Bhat says, confident of a start of a good run.
Sai Praneeth’s head-shaking in response to tough situations, though, has got Bhat’s goat when he coached him at Bangalore. “That body language is very bad. Top players never do that. He has to learn! Even someone who doesn’t know any badminton can walk into a stadium and know he’s trailing – it’s that stark,” Bhat says, demanding under-reaction and a poker face from Praneeth, like Asian masters do.
While exulting and pumping fists get crowds going, a large part of Asian mastery over badminton has been a complete screening of facial emotions. Punching the air is still alright – drooping shoulders and shaking head is a strict-no, for the talented player who pulls off the most stunning shots amongst Indians and has beaten Chong Wei at All England.
A chunk of the worry regarding Srikanth going into big meets is his ability to negotiate slow courts – though the man himself insists his first title came in China against Lin Dan on a slow court, and stresses it’s a non-issue. Bhat says it’s a matter for a mull, but not hugely bothersome for someone as accomplished as Srikanth.
“He’s predominantly an attacking player who likes fast shuttles – his tribe like it that when they hit a smash, the opponent should struggle. But on slow courts, smashes get picked, so you have to wait for the opponent to get into discomfort,” Bhat says. “You need to be fit and have patience. Even if in the first half of match he runs, be prepared that legs will hurt tomorrow but you still have to play the long match again. In big events, you need to be ready for everything, 20-all situations in finals where emotion can’t come into play. He’ll get there,” Bhat says with confidence.
Bhat reckons Sai Praneeth is also on the verge of a breakout. “This year he’s learnt he just needs to run. He’s building fitness, and is taking time in rallies. His problem is also psychological, and such problems need trial and error solutions,” he says.
The player that had boomed soon after Srikanth was HS Prannoy, the backhand beast who can smash like Hulk when he gets his crosscourts across the body going. “He’s a very tough guy mentally,” Bhat says adding that he looks like he’s sorted his physiological issues. What Prannoy does have going for him is he’s a thinker on court – sometimes an over-thinker, but capable of surviving without spoon-feeding. He opens against Sai Praneeth, a clash that’s popcorn chomping but culls Indian challenge by one, immediately.
There’s more than inspiration that Saina and Sindhu have given Srikanth & Co: the calm in the slipstream of the storm to find their footing, and a cool shade in which to thrive while the two women face the blinding glare of the spotlights and absorb the pressure like they always do at any tournament, even ones not called All England.