KIDAMBI SRIKANTH wasn’t marked out for success as an under-19 badminton player — he never won a national singles title as a junior. Five years on, the 24-year-old from Guntur, living in Hyderabad now, will be the most marked man at August’s badminton world championships after reaching three Super Series finals, and winning two: the youngest Super Series in Australia and the most popular one in Indonesia.
On Sunday, when Srikanth beat Olympic and World Champion Chen Long 22-20, 21-16 to lift the Sydney crown, he propelled himself into becoming a serious contender for the Glasgow Worlds, even as he pocketed close to Rs 1 crore in prize money and awards in two weeks.
Srikanth already had the home Super Series title in 2015, and a crown in China — in fact, he debuted as champion in the superpower’s backyard beating the game’s greatest, Lin Dan. Last week, with the Indonesia Premier Super Series, he had won over the game’s most demanding fans, as he overpowered current World No 1 Son Wan Ho in back-to-back weeks.
However, beating Chen Long in a tournament final propels Srikanth into badminton’s stratosphere. Last month this day, he was just another fighter jostling at World No 24, and only India’s fourth best. In just six weeks, he has been the biggest mover in world rankings, rising 11 places last week, and set to regain his top-5 status after this triumph.
June was jotted as Saina Nehwal’s month in Indian badminton after she made three back-to-back finals in 2010. However, June 2017 heralds the emergence of Indian men’s singles players, with Srikanth and team-mate H S Prannoy accounting for Olympic champ Chen Long in successive weeks.
Srikanth’s mettle will be truly tested over the biggies — All England crown, World Championships and Asian Games — but as far as scalps go, he has proven himself to be a world-beater in the mould of Prakash Padukone and P Gopichand. Srikanth, though, now has four Super Series titles.
“I don’t want to compare my China and Australia titles, but this will rank as one of the biggest of my career. Beating the reigning Olympic champion is always difficult. That combined with back-to-back titles makes it memorable,” Srikanth told The Indian Express.
Sunday in Sydney belonged entirely to the attacking Indian against the Chinese. Though Long confessed to suffering a bout of gastroenteritis and diarrhoea and not being in peak physical shape, he had done well enough to make the finals. “Since I made the final I wanted to continue to play as well as I could. My opponent was aggressive and got confident after he won the first game,” Long told the BWF after the loss.
Srikanth has been in aggressive form last fortnight snapping at opponents with his rushes to the net and whipping smashes but was acutely aware of Long’s ability to find a toehold from a clutch of winners.
On his part, Srikanth kept his errors in check, never really allowing adrenaline to get the better of him, staying patient in the long rallies. “Winning the first set was crucial to assert my advantage. At 20-20, I told myself to hang in there and not give easy points,” he said.
Srikanth had stewed over the disappointment of missing out on an Olympics semifinal spot when after leading, he had crumbled into a bunch of errors at Rio against Lin Dan.
On Sunday, he was in no mood to allow Long that leeway. Whenever the Chinese threatened to rain the downward smashes, Srikanth retrieved gamely and drew out Long’s cross court half smash errors. Srikanth would also claw into Long’s mind, with strategic lifts that took the sting out of the Chinese champ’s smashes winning the opener 22-20.
What broke Long’s back was the long rally at the start of the second set where an upbeat Srikanth calmed himself, slowing down time in high toss-exchanges, and ended with a suddenly sped-up smash kill. Long never recovered from there and was chasing shadows even as Srikanth grew in confidence and played an unabashed attacking game. Here was an accomplished all-round game, with an astutely thinking brain. India was staring at a potential all-conquering world beater.
“He only reached the semifinals of a junior national, and only won in doubles,” said Srikanth’s brother K Nandagopal. “But it proves that parents and coaches should not give up just based on junior results like it happens in India. If our parents had given up, then Srikanth would never be winning today.” Coach Gopichand only started focussing on his singles career at 19.
While physio C Kiran kept a 24×7 check on Srikanth that helped him last the two winning weeks, Gopichand reckons his ward is at 75 percent of his potential. “He’s currently in the world’s top 5 or 6, but we cannot take opposition lightly heading into Worlds in August,” he said.
Chen Long, Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei, Viktor Axelsen, Son Wan Ho will be different propositions with the world title at stake — Japanese genius Kento Momota also returns to the circuit this year — but the name Kidambi Srikanth sits easily on that list after it rained titles in June.