Aparna Popat remembers singles players in her time being encouraged to practice a bit of doubles not just to add to the armoury of strokes, but to develop the ‘doubles instinct’ — going forward to kill the shuttle.
Kidambi Srikanth’s staple stroke — the one where he stomps to the net to finish with a tap kill, picking the shuttle well above the chord — was honed with that same doubles instinct. His six Super Series titles have been strung together, charging the net with decisive strides, and pouncing on the shuttle to almost scare his opponents.
It’s been the bedrock of his junior career where he revelled in playing doubles – with its parallel game of drives, pushes and taps. And this net tap had been the highlight of his first-ever Super Series conquest – against Lin Dan in China. More recently, he rattled the 6’4” imposing Dane Viktor Axelsen on his way to the Denmark Open title.
Axelsen had managed to nick the first set 21-14. But he could sense the lull ahead of the net-storm. Srikanth shrugged off respect for his opponent’s World Championship-winning game in a jiffy at one point in the second set, and began gunning for the net with such ferocity that the Dane would visibly flinch from playing at the front court and avoid the net thereafter, unable to stem the flooding of net winners as he lost 14-21, 22-20, 21-a staggering-7.
In the semis the next day, Wing Ki Wong was lured into engaging in a few dribbles at the start – the Hong Kong player started lifting, but completely lost confidence when Srikanth started slashing his taps – snorting them like the breath of a dragon.
The doubles instinct has armed the 24-year-old with the confidence to take on any top player from his early days – and his stunning execution leaves a haunting blur from which many don’t recover. He might not be as massive as Chen Long, but Kidambi Srikanth looms large at the net and is unforgiving on the kill. Having got a fraction of a second faster, and catching the shuttle higher to whack it, Srikanth’s only getting more ominous.
It’s second nature for him to attack the net given the muscle memory of his doubles game which makes him unique on the singles circuit. And now he’s added variations to go with the sheer speed. He taps fast — varying it straight and across: in the French final, Kenta Nishimoto was ready for the tap that plunged down straight, but could do little when Srikanth, with his tremendous control, started hitting across — with a last-minute tweak of the wrist.
And he’s got a mean dribble to boot, with the constant menacing threat. It’s badminton’s hit-and-run for shuttle and needs plenty of power — to bound to the net and effect the net-kill with the same intensity of a smash. That he is picking the shuttle early, right on top of the net at a height, means he denies opponents any time to react.
What makes him even more lethal is a shot he learnt for a lark while training in doubles as a teenager. It is his stop-and-play flick, where he holds the shuttle a split second before thrashing it home.
Shuttlers at Gopichand’s academy typically have something called an ‘easy session’, where they engage in standing strokes — minus all the scurrying about, a break for their stamina reserves. It’s in these standing stroke-hitouts that both Srikanth and Sai Praneeth go about fiddling with their net games and replay the hybrid strokes in live time. Interestingly, Sai Praneeth had beaten Srikanth in junior doubles finals, but he’s not as quick as the 6-time Super Series winner.
Srikanth’s confidence at the net is pristine arrogance and risk-taking, the kinds that Indians could boast about.
Gopichand is pretty pleased with his ward’s driving game, and the generic speed that saw Srikanth jump ahead from the centre of the court in the French final and then move back within seconds. “His tap is pure speed. The pouncing comes from quality leg-work, he’s always had this, and he’s always been fast,” he explains.
Even so, against Nishimoto, Srikanth missed 4 taps. What he did unerringly was smash – the champ’s other statement stroke. Here is someone confident enough to go for the lines at 20-all, and his straight, down-the-line smash is a thing of darting-arrow beauty. Against Lee Hyun Il in Denmark, Srikanth could send two straight down, and the cross as a surprise the next instant. Timing his jump to perfection, Srikanth uses his signature sharp contact with the shuttle for an overhead dominance that spells doom, and gets unplayable on fast courts on days when he’s ‘feeling good about the smash’.
So his bread ‘n butter is the down-the-line which demands accuracy: getting under the shuttle, jumping up and thwack.
Usually, he’ll float a few tosses in rallies and wait to get the perfect height and position to smash. But there’s the most recent Smash 3.0 that’s getting experts excited. It’s the ‘half-leap hit’ which defies most laws of physics. “What he’s doing exceedingly well these days are these half-leaps back, to attack the shuttle that’s somewhat short. It’s smashes for which you don’t get a lay-up and need tremendous strength,” Popat explains.
In going for this shot, Srikanth will jump diagonally backwards. So his body momentum is moving back, but the smash is directed decidedly forward. With these energies not in sync, Srikanth has to rely on his leg strength, get himself time to swing hard and additionally get himself the height.
He’s no mug with the half-smashes and drops either.
“He’s innately smart and just knows stuff on court,” Gopichand says, adding, “He sees vacant angles and gaps on court that others might not. He’s also quick to act on seeing where his opponent is rushing. And then there’s the speed on the hard smash.”
The defensive winners
What Gopichand does frown upon a tad though are Srikanth’s reflexive flicks in defence that end up as sensational winners, talking like a mother who doesn’t approve of her kid’s stunts on the ledge. He clucks to say disapprovingly, “It looks good, but it’s just some fancy thing.”
So when opponents go for Srikanth with body smashes, he contrives to get himself in what must be a very awkward position – taking it behind his body, and still manages to instinctively flick it back in placements that are in some incorrigible instances, winners. Gopichand rolls his eyes at the backhand grip, though most are dazzled that he can convert on these crosscourt defensive flicks. It’s bravado, but looks sensational when the shuttle flies for a winner. The forehand ones which he can manage by being wily and moving the body out of the way – hit from behind, can be deceptive too.
Again it’s a doubles skill, and given he’s powerful in his wrist, Srikanth turns one of the most disadvantageous positions into one of advantage.
The last mile
Still, Srikanth is not quite the master of his destiny till he figures a way to negotiate slow courts – mostly by gritting it out and grinding out long rallies.
His defence could improve, as could his holding backcourt game. He is yet to beat Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long in the big events, and Son Wan Ho showed he’ll outrun him on a slow court. The Chinese left-handed Tian Houwei remains his nemesis. With his high-risk game – and despite the recent monkish consistency – errors can creep in at any time when he can’t temper his attacking instinct. And he was lucky to down a rampaging Prannoy who fell to nerves. But 2017 has been about savouring some delectable strokes – and transcribing Indian badminton’s most fascinating mind.