The first time he beat Lee Chong Wei in an Indian league match, Kidambi Srikanth had bristled at the tiny, but important victory wrongly being called ‘not a competitive match.’ Heading into the fourth season of the PBL while spearheading Bengaluru Blasters, Srikanth has scored that ‘competitive’ win against the legend this year — at the Commonwealth Games team finals, no less. He became the World No. 1 that same week, before his season became a slippery slope downhill, even as he’s learnt to skid to a stop and not fall over.
India’s biggest success in men’s singles of the last decade, starts his campaign, cutting a far calmer frame than that jumpy kid who had slashed away at Chong Wei’s game with his explosive game, but wasn’t mature enough back then in his sophomore year to deal with the flip side of fame and expectations.
This edition sees India’s only Top 10 men’s shuttler who burst onto the scene as Lin Dan’s conqueror but took his time to consolidate thereafter, poised to perfection. “It hasn’t been that great a year,” he says with measured pauses and no signs of snapping. “But I made quarters and semis consistently, so it’s not as bad as it looks,” he says. There was also the World No 1, tempered by “a few tough losses.”
“This year I’ve learnt you have to enjoy the lessons learnt from losses,” he says, admitting that there’s been a fair few “easy matches which I made tough.”
It’s been that kind of a year. At the CWG, he found himself staring in disbelief at a 17-0 scoreline. He got the long-desired win against Chong Wei (it’s 6-1 in the Malaysian’s favour), but Srikanth accepts that it was the mixed doubles pairing of Ashwini Ponappa and Satwiksairaj who set it up. “They pulled off their opening match against Malaysia and I just carried it forward,” he says of India’s maiden gold.
There was a 78-minute loss against Korean Lee Dong Keun at Japan. “21-18 in the third is tough, but I got sweet revenge at French — 21-18 again,” he says, chuckling about how it taught him to be alert perennially against players who are tough to score off. “I’m always happy to finish in straight sets, but I’m learning other lessons,” he says.
The biggest from his last year — where he picked 4 titles and was unstoppable on the circuit was, how to forget.
“After December 2017, I wanted to start 2018 fresh and not take pressure,” he says of the monstrous expectations that’d be piled on him. He brings out his wry candour, saying, “It was easy to forget because I was injured. So I could erase all of 2017,” he quips.
Kidambi Srikanth also discovered the only lasting truth of the circuit. “I realised I have to enjoy what I do. I’d started badminton because I loved playing,” he says.
The other thing that happened was how non-happening his World No 1 ended up being. “Everyone dreams of it. I definitely dreamt of it. But then I realised it feels nothing different from now! It’s just that now that’s not my target, I’ve achieved it. Now I want titles,” he adds.
What essentially happened was that he sat on the perch for a week. Half of it was spent wrapping up CWG, and three days were spent in India — Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — answering interviews on CWG. “Then it was Friday, new rankings were up and it was gone,” he says with an almighty laugh. Srikanth has Viktor Axelsen for company in negotiating a wretched year, but he knows his competition.
“Kento Momota — I’ll have to be much more consistent than him. Shi Yuqi I can’t give him too many chances. Darren Liew was aggressive at the Worlds (sending him packing early at the World Championships). Chen Long has experience.” Tokyo 2020 might be 18 months away, but Srikanth is clear about how he’ll approach it. “Ofcourse every step is geared towards that. But I also have to look at the smaller picture,” he says.
The PBL gave a boost to those like Satwik and Srikanth himself — after that Chong Wei win. But it’s the behind-the-scenes lessons that he values more.
“Chirag Shetty learnt most from training with Koreans and that showed in them making semis of a Super Series soon after. For me, it was learning from (Indonesian doubles great, 1 Olympics, 3 Worlds titles) Hendra Setiawan. At this age and having achieved it all, he can take it easy. But I loved how he was sincere in his preparation, and warm-up routines even at this age (34),” he says.
Srikanth patiently counters the claims that he can win only on fast courts and All England could turn out tougher than anticipated on that count. “My first title came in China,” he says. Jog his memory back to that Lee Chong Wei win in the league, and the jumpy Srikanth is playfully back though.
“I beat him in Mumbai. When they announced my name at the start of the match and I walked in at NSCI, there was complete silence. Imagine, my home crowd! When they announced his name, it was a noisiest roar. By the third set, it was the opposite,” he gloats.
If the charm offensive doesn’t work, Kidambi Srikanth will force his way into spectator’s hearts thrashing opponents — he implies in his mischievous retort.