Updated: January 4, 2016 1:42:05 am
Lee Chong Wei was facing some stepping problems on the court in his first Premier Badminton League tie for Hyderabad Hunters — taking the court the same evening that he landed in India. Court-side coach Aravind Bhat was the first to spot it. By then Kidambi Srikanth of Bengaluru Top Guns was 1-5 down in the opener. The instructions were short and precise – to alternate his smashes with drops.
Chong Wei, the Malaysian, who had occupied the top perch of rankings for close to seven years, was toying with Srikanth’s smashes — some five varieties of them in depth and angles. Pretty looking projectiles rendered useless by the maestro whose deep defense is second skin to his game.
Bhat had earlier in the tie attempted to drill similarly pithy instructions to Sameer Verma — a surprise trump match for Bangalore against P Kashyap, though they were silently banking on the latter’s untested match-fitness post his calf injury. Verma had nodded vigorously to what his coaching corner was telling him, but failed to execute most of the plans.
Srikanth’s not Top 10 in the world for nothing. “A coach can’t help any player to beat Lee Chong Wei with mere instructions. Srikanth followed what I said immediately, but it was entirely his instinctive understanding of what to do when that took him to this win,” Bhat said. It was a 15-12, 6-15, 15-7 maiden win over the badminton legend. The match was inconsequential to the tie – Bengaluru had already lost that battle. But it was Srikanth’s first match of the year after a difficult season, and more crucially Chong Wei was on a 15-match unbeaten streak since October.
It took the Indian World No.9 a few minutes to get accustomed to the drift in the heavily air conditioned stadium.
And close to five aggressive but ineffective smashes to start a course correction. “I played five different strokes, made five different mistakes. And then I changed,” he would later say.
Chong Wei can stand at one place and parry smashes with his Neo-from-Matrix-like racquet work. But when Srikanth started mixing things up, not letting up on the aggressive intent, while making him move back and forth, that the Malaysian would be thrown off a tad.
It helped that the 15-point format and sudden death suited Srikanth’s attacking style of play. Chong Wei himself remained curiously error-prone. He’d said he wasn’t at his best yet – only “85 per cent” after his third Super Series title at Hong Kong. But though he’d strike some form in the mid-set, he never got going in the decider as Srikanth mixed subtlety with strength.
2015 had been a lesson in what not to do, he would say later. “I tried everything in match ending situations – rushing, playing safe, smashing, defending, nothing seemed to be working,” he said. “I would play attacking when the situation demanded defense and play cautious when I needed to be aggressive against a certain player. I’m slowly learning what to do when,” he said.
Having never taken a set off Chong Wei (though he dragged him into a decider in the last IBL) on the international circuit, Srikanth was punch pleased with his effort today. “It’s good to have beaten top two styles of play – Lin Dan’s more a rallying way, and Chong Wei’s aggressive. That plus beating Viktor Axelsen at India Super Series last year – it’s good to get those wins,” he said.
Srikanth’s 2015 season had 7 first-round exits — and after the high against Lin Dan, this included the notorious distinction of becoming Tian Houwei’s bunny — losing to the Chinese thrice in two months. There were assorted three set losses — most notably the World Championship loss to Hu Yun (23-21 in the third) and to Tommy Sugiarto at the Indonesian Masters (24-22 in the decider), and after battling the classic second season blues where opponents seemed to have read through him, Srikanth’s game looks on the mend.
“The little I saw of his matches during the end of last year, he seemed to have all the strokes. But just the mind needed to adjust,” Bhat says, promising, “Srikanth’s adding new stuff to his game too.”
For Srikanth who went aggressive on the line call challenges too and at one point seemed like he’d burst through the net debating a point, it was completing some unfinished business.
Having first come to notice to Indian spectators at the last IBL — where he incidentally stole a set off Chong Wei — it was time he put one across. “I won a set against him last time,” he reminded. This win might not need reminding.