Pinnacle in his sights

Pinnacle in his sights

With sport, finding the trajectory towards greatness is what all players strive for, but only a handful realise the goal. Disappointments, heartbreaks and serious injuries lead to the downfall of many, but the ones with true grit overcome such adversities and etch their names in history books.

It was November 16, 2014 and a shy, young lad from Guntur was up against badminton superstar and legend Lin Dan in front of the latter's home fans in Fuzhou, China.

The first game had gone the way of the Indian as he displayed nimble footwork and vicious smashes against a two-time Olympic champion. Precisely 21 minutes later, scenes of euphoria engulfed the court-side of the Haixia Olympic Sport Centre as an elated Kidambi Srikanth exulted at 21-19, 21-17 as he became the first Indian to win a Super Series Premier men's event.

This, the China Open Super Series, was the first and what Srikanth calls his 'most memorable' Super Series title. Critics may have called the first a fluke, considering he didn't win his next till 2017, but he has ended all doubts with a stupendous season so far, soaring to the elite ranks of world badminton.

"I would still probably call the China Open my best win to date because I was very young and just getting into the bigger leagues then. That said, I honestly treat all my titles the same. That win was special because facing someone like Lin Dan whom we've all grown up watching was a daunting task and he was at the top of his game then. So definitely, beating him and that too in front of his home fans was an incredible experience," says Srikanth.

He backed his China success with a triumph at the 2015 India Open beating the current World No 1 Viktor Axelsen, but, by his elevated present standards and plethora of recent titles, went through a lull in 2016.

What had started with Lin Dan, threatened to end with him as well, as a three-game loss in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics hurt Srikanth's morale immensely and a subsequent ankle  stress fracture during the 2016 Korea Open proved to be another damaging blow.

"That was a tough phase for me personally. It was actually a real close affair against Lin Dan there (at the Olympics) and I was highly disappointed with my result because there were two crucial points that slipped away.

"Then the injury happened and you can't really predict what's going to happen. But I'm glad I realised that the best thing to do was to focus all my energy on recovering fully and overcome it."

But everything changed this year for the 24-year-old as he rose like a phoenix to accumulate four Super Series titles in 2017 alone, and with it shoot himself to World No 2 in the BWF rankings.

By virtue of his victories, Srikanth has also joined an elite pack of players – Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei, and Chen Long -- that have won four Super Series titles in a year. Quizzed on whether it was overwhelming to be in such a position, he calmly said: "I'm feeling really happy. But before I can comment further, I'd like to finish my season on a high. Of course they are the biggest legends in badminton. To have my name feature in the same list with them is a thoroughly special feeling. I'm excited by it."

Srikanth's feat was even more impressive as he overcame heavyweights Chen Long (Australia Open), Axelsen (Denmark Open) and Son Wan Ho (Indonesia Open) en route.

Going from a young boy who hated fitness routines, Srikanth is now rubbing shoulders with the most nimble and fleet-footed badminton players across the world. This part of his game has come to the forefront post his ankle injury. Srikanth  reveals that he worked really hard on his fitness, while retaining most aspects of his on-court play.

"It wasn't about my game. I didn't really tweak it too much. For me, it is more about knowing your body. The key is to acknowledge how I actually feel before I make any conscious decision of pushing myself to the limit and coming back onto the circuit. I was happy to take my time. It was a slow process and I didn't push myself. One small step at a time was what it was."

When fitness of players is mentioned on the Indian badminton circuit, one name comes to mind – that of Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo. Multiple players have mentioned in numerous interviews that Handoyo, who previously coached the legendary Taufik Hidayat, has brought in a regime that will catapult physical levels of the Indians to greater heights.

Joining chief national coach Pullela Gopichand in the beginning of 2017, Handoyo has delivered results consistently in the current season.

"Handoyo has been a great addition to the set-up and he's actually taken Indian badminton to the next level. He's changed the entire dimension of how we train. He has 25-30 years of experience. To have him and someone with the expertise of Gopi sir, we can see that badminton in the country is headed in the right direction," opined Srikanth.

In recent years, Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu have been the flag-bearers of Indian badminton but the male players have hit the headlines in superb fashion, with Srikanth, H S Prannoy and B Sai Praneeth making the world sit up and take notice of them. Srikanth believed that for a more sustained domination of the sport in both categories, there was still a lot left to be done.

"I think the amount of hard work we have been putting in has been really helping us improve various aspects of our game. But if we want to stay at the top for long, there is a lot more we need to do and remain focused on doing that. Saina, Sindhu, (HS) Prannoy, Praneeth and I have been doing really well. I don't see why we cannot continue to dominate the scene as long as we are honest with what we do."

The hectic nature of the season has caught up with India's top men's shuttler as he will give the China Open Super Series Premier and the Hong Kong Open Super Series a miss. A quadriceps muscle strain to his leg during the Senior National Badminton Championships in Nagpur earlier this month  has effectively ended his hopes of becoming World No 1 and he will now hope to regain full fitness and mount a challenge at the season-ending Dubai World Super Series Finals in December.

"My immediate focus is to play well in Dubai. I really want to do well  there since it's the season-ender. I reached the World Super Series Masters final in 2014 (losing to Long in the semifinal) and hope I can take one step further this time."

No matter what Srikanth does from here on, he definitely has joined the upper echelons of the badminton world. With age on his side, this trailblazer is sure to enthrall one and all for many years to come.

 

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