Kidambi Srikanth isn’t among the talkative guys who would let you get an insight into their thought process or even give a remote hint about what is bothering them. So when you make a simple matter-of-fact statement about winning a Superseries title after a gap of two years, you expect the 24-year-old to give a run-of-the-mill answer about how good it feels to win any title.
And so you are obviously taken aback when he reacts saying, “It was not like I was not trying and working hard. But I was losing close matches in three games.”
The origin of the reaction can be traced back to the Rio Olympics where the former world No 3 came agonisingly close to beating two-time champion Lin Dan in the quarter-finals and needed more than a week to just return to training after coming back to India.
Srikanth spent a considerable amount of time speaking about that loss soon after winning the Indonesia Superseries title in Jakarta on Sunday. “It was my first Olympics, I was playing Lin Dan and he hadn’t lost a game in the Olympics in like eight years,” he told the media after beating Kazumasa Sakai in straight games in the summit clash. “It was a close match, one of biggest matches of my career for sure. I was handling the pressure well, but unfortunately I lost. I’ll be in tough situations but I know no match can push me to that limit like the Rio quarters,”
Unfortunately for Srikanth he suffered a stress fracture soon after the Rio reversal and was out of action for over three months. That further dented his confidence as his ranking plummeted and he had to first regain full fitness before looking to challenge for titles.
The novelty factor about his unorthodox strokes that gave him an added advantage in the initial years on the circuit had also worn off. It was clear that he needed some change to tackle the signs of self-doubt that had begun to creep in.
“Things were different after the Rio Olympics,” said chief national coach Pullela Gopichand. “He took a break and then got injured and so it was not going to be easy for him. But after the PBL (Premier Badminton League), where he played well, things began to improve. We tried to keep things simple for him after that and I am happy that the results have started to show.”
New training system
Though there were no drastic changes, the one major change that Srikanth had to adjust was the slightly different training system that Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo was implementing. The coach of former Olympic and World champion Taufiq Hidayat shifted the players from shorter training sessions to long drawn ones, which made them work on their skills as well as on court stamina.
While Singapore Open champion B Sai Praneeth was the first to credit Mulyo’s system for the change in his fortunes, even Srikanth admitted that the Indonesian has played an important part in his resurgence.
“He has changed our training style and it took us time to adjust to it,” said Srikanth. “But he knows what is needed to win at this level and it is really working for me now.”
Srikanth admitted that the run to the Singapore Open final, where he lost to Sai Praneeth, helped him once again start believing in himself and also to probably take wins and losses in his stride. “I am in a much better place now,” he said. “There are 12 Superseries tournaments each year, and now I know, even if I lose one final, I’ll have another one coming up. I lost in Singapore, but those losses ensured I sit here today a winner in Indonesia.”
It wasn’t the case that Srikanth was out of form after returning from injury. He reached the semi-finals of the India Open Grand Prix Gold and reached the pre-quarters of the German Open. But one could make out that apart from peak fitness, the confidence to stick around and wait for the opportunity to go for a winner was also missing.
Srikanth was known to oscillate between being erratic to brilliant in the same match in the past. Even in Indonesia, there were occasions when Srikanth really struggled to hold his game together and made a flurry of errors.
In the past, such a period of play could have seen him disintegrate completely and lose. However, the 24-year-old showed the tenacity to fight the difficult conditions and also the demons in his own head to recover from the spell, be it against Jan O Jorgensen in the second round or during the upset win over world No 1 Son Wan Ho in the semi-finals.
In the final against Sakai as well, Srikanth was guilty of making too many unforced errors in the first half of the second game. But to his credit, he kept things simple after the break and was willing to grind for points.
Now the real challenge for the 24-year-old would be become more consistent not just with his results but with his overall game. If he can manage that, there is no doubt the boy from Guntur can change the narrative by the time he Tokyo 2020 arrives.