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Sunday, January 23, 2022

A 2nd wind: Srikanth’s BWF World Championships silver can reignite his fire

Despite the 15-21, 20-22 loss to Loh Kean Yew, reaching the final will help the Indian believe he can match the very best players again.

Written by Shivani Naik |
Updated: December 20, 2021 7:58:58 am
India's Kidambi Srikanth returns a shot to Singapore's Loh Kean Yew during their Mens badminton singles final match at the BWF World Championships in Huelva, Spain, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

The riders on Kidambi Srikanth’s World Championship silver are as many as jockey’s silks on a derby-day race course: depleted field, easy draw, not a single seeded opponent.

What is undeniable though, is that the 28-year-old Indian has this week, crossed so many mental barriers of his own, that the second-best place finish cannot diminish the glorious sight of him bolting out the stallion blocks. The fighting wins against Chinese, the asserting of class against Lakshya Sen, the rushing of the net, the expertly constructed rally with a smash winner, all point to a Srikanth that the world always expected to contest all the big finals. Truly world-class. India’s finest even, his name gingerly whispered in the same breath as the two that must always be named in India’s men’s singles legions.

Srikanth has had a torrid time last few years. Injuries to his leading right knee on which rested (and exploded) his entire career. Not making it to the Olympics was a setback. He had himself grown tired of memories of titles from 2017 – so far back in the past that was. The World No.1 tag had seemed hollow, mocking even, when the one week period of that promising April when he sat atop rankings perch, got mentioned.

Moreover, Lakshya Sen was happening to Indian badminton – and that in this country tends to be accompanied with a lot of cackling, sharpened knives and discrediting of the last fading hero. In winning the World Silver, and the semis the way he did, Srikanth doggedly guarded his citadel as India’s best contemporary shuttler. Sai Praneeth had the bronze, HS Prannoy the big marquee wins, Kashyap the Commonwealth champ title, and Lakshya breathing down. This silver was the thunderous lightening in that dark sky for Srikanth where his fame was fading from memories.

Srikanth has five big titles on the circuit, more than anyone in India currently. But a World Championship silver took him past those games that might be as beautiful, but hadn’t always converted to a tournament Sunday headlining appearance. Making finals, being the showpiece of Finals Day, raising anticipation of the arena crowds, pinning people back home to TV sets on Sunday eves, getting families to order in and pop some corn – only stars reaching tournament finals do that. For

Indians that has meant Sindhu past few years. For a change it was an Indian male amongst the big boys.

Srikanth proved with this World Championship that he could go deep into a tournament, and that has a lilt of its own.

Different rival styles neutralized, different countries ousted, the building of the crescendo where entire Hamelin follows the Pied Piper. Simply playing that sweet tune. Srikanth revived that for a generation of Indians that were born after Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand’s All England titles.

Sindhu has raised the bar higher than any in India. But men’s singles had dawdled and dithered, losing its way, mired in camp-wars, social media rants and open to snark and taunts by anyone with a Twitter account. Srikanth’s silver at the World’s will atleast briefly earn an entire generation of shuttlers some breathing space.

From left, silver medalist India’s Kidambi Srikanth, gold medalist Singapore’s Loh Kean Yew, bronze mefdalist Denmark’s Anders Antonsen and bronze medalist India’s Lakshya Sen pose on the podium of the Mens badminton singles at the BWF World Championships in Huelva, Spain, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

But more than the larger picture, if the loss in the World Championships final doesn’t ignite a fire in Kidambi Srikanth to reboot and upgrade his career-ambitions, then nothing else will. Purely in badminton terms, Loh Keah Yew with his shiny gold has thrown a challenge at the Indian to re-examine his training choices and priorities, while giving him sure confidence that he has it in him to challenge for the big titles. That he belongs to the top rung, on virtue of his game, and not a nostalgic past.

It’s premature to declare this the greatest achievement, because you’d hope others take the next step. But the silver, and the manner in which Srikanth fought this weekend, even in a no-chance against Loh, gives a fresh lease of life to the sport.

Not flush with reassuring support like Lakshya Sen, Srikanth though was a product of the system – handpicked by P Gopichand to steer towards singles, his laidbackness as a doubles player, cast aside and fuelled with singles ambition. When Srikanth won the Thailand GP one distant monsoon ago, beating Boonsak Ponsana, he had broken ground for Indians to start aiming at tournament titles – Gopichand’s All England fading, and Padukone’s exploits relegated to sepia.

When Srikanth beat Lin Dan at China, the Chinese took notice. His game always oozed class, but validation from the superpower, its stadium crowd, applauding a challenge to their Super Dan, had pointed to a meteoric rise. The 2017 titles at Indonesia, Australia, France had pointed to an upcurve. But his quarterfinals at Glasgow in 2017 World Championships started one sorry trend of him botching the big tournaments.

CWG, Asiad, World’s – all came and went, a final not in sight always to justify his potential. The Olympics quarters loss to Lin Dan threw him on the brink of depression. The knee injury, the shoddy fitness, first round losses to rank unknowns would all pile up the ammunition fired at him, even as the reticent man, went into a shell often. It must be disquieting for a man aware of his massive talent to realise he wasn’t earning himself the big stages to unfurl all that brilliance.

Viktor Axelsen, Antonsen, Chen Long, Shi Yuqi and finally Kento Momota would grab the big stages, contest the big finals, even as Srikanth who had started believing in his own talent was wracked by self doubt, and a drifting career. He even went to SAF Games in Nepal to rediscover the winning feeling. But it took until the end of 2021 – nine months after his Olympics qualifications dream ended – for him to start enjoying the sport once more.

Humbled a tad by these misses, centred on the only thing that mattered – his game, and enjoying the idea of out-manouvering opponents, Srikanth would put his head down for this Huelva encore of a hazy history of ruling the ranking world.

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