Fresh from winning his fourth Superseries title of the year, Srikanth Kidambi had the support of a partisan crowd at the Nagpur Divisional Sports Complex during the men’s singles final of the national championship against HS Prannoy last week.
While the crowd was chanting Srikanth’s name, watching the match from the players’ enclosure a few metres away was a young bespectacled man in a red sweatshirt who quite resembled Indian badminton’s man of the moment. “Come on! Come on!” he would yell every now and then.
But for the spectacles, slightly longer hair and a French beard rather than a full stubble, it would be difficult to tell this man and Srikanth apart. He is, after all, Srikanth’s elder brother.
Nandagopal Kidambi was not in Nagpur only to support his brother. He had reached the semi-finals of the Nationals with his men’s doubles partner Alwin Francis, before losing to eventual champions Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy.
Srikanth, in a recent interview with The Field, had said that Nandagopal was the “biggest factor for why I am where I am today. If he had not joined the academy, I don’t know where I would have been.”
However, a decision taken by their coach P Gopichand four years ago would change the two brothers’ lives forever. Until 2012, Srikanth was a doubles player, while Nandagopal focused on singles. Gopichand, however, asked the two brothers to switch.
Srikanth took to singles like a bear to honey. Within months of making the switch, he won the Maldives International Challenge and reached the semi-finals of the Macau Open in 2012. Nandagopal too lifted the mixed doubles title in Maldives in 2013 along with K Maneesha.
However, an injury to Maneesha meant that Nandagopal was forced to change his partner. That’s been the story of his career ever since. Since 2012, Nandagopal has played with at least 12 different men’s doubles partners and six in mixed doubles, although he seems to have found some stability after pairing up with Mahima Aggarwal this year.
While long-term injuries to his partners is one reason for the frequent changes, his coaches never seemed to have figured out who he should pair with. “When you’re in the national set-up, you don’t have an option to pick your own partners,” said Nandagopal.
Ever since Malaysian coach Tan Kim Her was put in charge of India’s doubles badminton in 2015, he has shuffled many a pair. Some have yielded successful results, such as Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty reaching two Superseries quarter-finals and breaking into the world’s top 30 this year just 18 months after reluctantly starting to play together.
Unfortunately for Nandagopal, it hasn’t quite worked out yet. “Indian doubles is also more of an ego battle,” he said. “Not too many partners are comfortable [with each other] off the court.”
Currently ranked 170th in the world in men’s doubles (with Sanyam Shukla) and 110th in mixed doubles (with Aggarwal), Nandagopal still has a long way to go.
It is then a remarkable achievement that Nandagopal and Alwin, who had never played together prior to the Nationals, still managed to reach the semi-finals. Just this September, the 25-year-old bagged the men’s and mixed doubles titles at the Kharkiv International in Ukraine with Rohan Kapoor and Aggarwal. In July, he and Aggarwal had lost in the final of the Malaysia International Series.
While Nandagopal is satisfied with the direction in which doubles badminton is moving in India, he believes a true measure of success would be when kids pick it up as a first choice rather than a fall-back.
“We need people to start playing doubles from an early stage like the Indonesians, Malaysians and Koreans,” he said. “They play professional doubles from the ages of 12 and 13. Take my case... switching at 21 is too late.”
Does he regret the switch?
The Kidambi brothers’ first coach, Sudhakar Reddy, even said that he had expected Nandagopal to be the star player in the future. Does Nandagopal wonder whether he could have achieved the same kind of success as his brother had he stuck with singles?
“I don’t regret moving to doubles but I regret not performing as well as I thought I could,” he said. The lack of success does begin to take a toll mentally. “When coaches take calls and change partners every four or five months, you can’t be in a proper mindset.”
Reddy, who coached the Kidambi brothers for almost a decade before they moved to the Gopichand academy in 2008, believes Nandagopal, given his personality, should never have moved to doubles.
“Nandagopal is not soft. He is a very aggressive player and very passionate but sometimes he can become very aggressive with his partner. In doubles, a few outspoken words can affect your partner immensely,” Reddy said.
At 25, Nandagopal has no plans to move back to singles. “It’s just a matter of finding some consistency with your partners,” he said.
Asked if he had ever discussed it with Srikanth, Nandagopal said it’s the last thing they would talk about.
“We spend a lot of time together – we go out, to restaurants and movies, we gossip, we play tennis, we do go-karting, we play Fifa on PS4 – but we don’t talk about badminton.”
Nandagopal is extremely proud of his younger brother’s achievements. His Facebook page is filled with posts of Srikanth’s numerous achievements over the years. Despite appearing to having drawn the shorter draw – although he will never admit that’s the case – in terms of their respective career moves, there isn’t even a hint of jealously about his brother’s success.