Kidambi Srikanth was answering the question for the dozenth time and was clearly bemused each time it persistently came up in the day — the one about how India’s shuttlers must’ve spent sleepless nights ever since the draw of the Asian team championship was out, and they were pooled with powerhouse China in the group stage. They didn’t — he fervently insisted.
“India’s not ranked in the Top 4 of Asia’s teams — we are ranked No. 5 to 8. So it was obvious we would play one of the top four teams in the group. I was happy it was China — the best time to play the world’s top team is in the pool stages when there’s no pressure on us and we can go out and play freely and have the cushion of beating another team,” he sagely explained. “Plus it would ensure, we wouldn’t meet China, for sure, in the quarters!” he guffawed.
Playing in the four-pool, 14-team event and waking up to take on China’s second-string (Tian Houwei — No. 8) is still ranked one place above India’s best Srikanth — No. 9), the absolute clarity with which K Srikanth saw the situation at the Hyderabad event, went a long way in finally putting it across China when the two Asian biggies met on Thursday. Srikanth would reverse results of five straight defeats he’s suffered at the hands of China’s top player here — Tian Houwei (Chen Long and Lin Dan didn’t fetch up in the Olympic year) to help India to its first-ever 3-2 win against China in a team event. While India’s doubles teams went the distance in solitary sets, it was Ajay Jayaram and HS Prannoy who finished what K Srikanth started, to win each of the three singles rubbers of the tie and hand the hosts a historic win.
India meet Malaysia — here without Lee Chong Wei — in the quarterfinals on Friday.
Srikanth’s had a year in which he has had to dig his heels in and battle the poor-form days, with his staggering talent burrowed under the challenge of opponents who had neatly dissected his game in his sophomore season at the top level. It’s the sort of year that can lead to self doubt and an intense scrutiny of his own game. But, none of that cracked confidence or peeling poise for the 22-year-old. Five defeats in 10 months to the same Chinese opponent and a 0-5 head-to-head score was not going to dent Kidambi Srikanth’s absolute confidence in taking on Tian Houwei. Far from being scarred by the repeated drubbings — his worst run against any player during the harrowing 2015 — Srikanth had nursed a defiant faith in his own gameplan and strategy against the third-best Chinese on the circuit.
Playing the longest match of his career — a 16-21, 21-15, 22-24 marathon that lasted 73 minutes, November last year, Srikanth had gone down from holding two match points against Tian just four months ago. “When I lost that match, I had tried a shot on the last point. But no regrets. My loss that day had nothing to do with wrong strategy or faulty selection of stroke. When finishing such matches, you need a bit of luck. I couldn’t that day, that’s it,” he recalls. Refusing to mull over that close loss, and hardly beating himself over it, Srikanth had arrived at this match, leading India’s challenge against the Chinese — who despite being depleted still carried the aura of being shuttle’s most dominant nation.
But the word ‘China’ has hardly scared Srikanth — someone who came to prominence beating Lin Dan at home. So he would strut to the stage to play the opener against the familiar foe — Tian. And in 33 clinical minutes, India’s top ace would dismantle the Chinese sticking to a strategy that he’s persisted with throughout the five losses to Tian. “From the beginning today, my plan was perfect strategy-wise. I could see he couldn’t control the drift, and everything fell into place — whether playing at the net or attacking from back,” he said, as he downed Tian 21-11, 21-17 to give India the 1-0 lead — a confidence that rubbed off on the others.
Burying the ghost, finally
It’s not like he had rolled over against Tian in previous face-offs, he stresses — “they had been three games the last four times!” So, playing at his home stadium at Gachibowli, with the entire young Indian contingent and juniors from Gopichand’s academy as well as his brother K Nandakumar cheering lustily, Srikanth had finally buried the ghost of Tian’s stranglehold on him. The Chinese is not a particularly tricky player — he’s a typical steady shuttler who’ll retrieve everything thrown at him and boasts a decent attack. Yet, the narrow matches had been difficult to convert and then the count of losses had gone upto 5. “The only thing on my mind was to win, and playing at home with academy mates cheering me, my confidence was high even before stepping onto the court,” Srikanth says. He remembers the last point well — though not quite the rally — when Tian hit out and gave India the lead. “The start was important. After that Ajay pulled out a crucial match,” he says.
And the rest of the gang followed.
While Manu Attri and Sumeeth Reddy would stay in the game till the opener, going down 22-20, 21-11 to Junhui Li and Zihan Qiu, Ajay Jayaram would take the court against China’s other young player Wang Zhengming. They went into battle with past honours shared at 1-1. But in the days leading upto the Asian team event, Ajay had noticed a distinct team spirit buzzing among his team mates. “We were training together, having meals together and had started well against Singapore (blanking them 5-0). Even the doubles combinations were playing well,” he says.
So after Srikanth had picked his maiden win against Tian, Ajay Jayaram found himself in the zone against Wang Zhengming. Taking the opener 22-20, the Mumbai lad would get early to the net and dictate from the fore court — an area much to his liking. The 28-year-old fancies the net exchanges, and his deception while he hovers there is one to savour for anyone who likes watching the dribbles and tight angular play. At crucial junctures and even when he trailed in the first and the third sets — the Indian wouldn’t allow the opponent’s reputation or the situation to get the better of him, knowing he was always in the game — moving and hitting well.
The games would go neck-to-neck till 15-all in all three sets and it was even at 18-18 in the decider, when Ajay would hold on well and refuse to give away the attack easily. The Chinese would blink and succumb to a mix of a dogged opponent and the wild drift to prevail in the hour-long battle. Though India would lose the second doubles battle — HS Prannoy would underline India’s great depth in men’s singles to dispatch Yuqi Shi 21-14, 21-10 in 33 minutes as well.
The Chinese beast was tamed, though it’s been a cumulative rise of confidence that helped along the way. “Over the years, that fear of playing against China has dropped a lot,” Ajay says. “Initially Saina did well against them, then Sindhu and Srikanth have got some big wins against them. Kashyap and me have beaten them now and then and with consistent wins against top 10 players, the aura is no longer as scary as it used to be,” he said.