Nothing can really replace the medals. And the man who would have felt this pain most acutely than anyone else is Kidambi Srikanth himself. Losses at Olympics and World Championships that cost him medals will be shrugged off because he’s young. Also because moping never brought back lost matches – and there’s always the next tournament to be won. But mopping off the disappointment of the Dubai Super Series Finals will be a good time to take stock of what 2017 has really meant to India’s biggest men’s singles name of the year.
Srikanth, World No.3, has 5 Super Series titles from six finals this season — an astounding number, and he’s won across three continents and over summer and autumn. Still, it is in the big events that the country’s most special talent – has been found wanting. On Wednesday, Srikanth had lost in straight sets to Viktor Axelsen, though there was little wrong with his approach and body language. On Thursday in the course of a 21-18, 21-18 loss to Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen in 43 minutes, the 24-year-old exited yet another major tournament leaving a lot to be desired from his effort.
Srikanth is playing with a taped bicep after his smashing shoulder – an integral part of his game – was aggravated late into the season. He skipped the last two Super Series after losing the Nationals finals, though both the major disappointments of this year — the Worlds and the Dubai season-ender bookended a glorious run of Super Series success at important venues – Indonesia and Denmark.
He’s beaten every top name on the circuit – and beaten them with staggering authority and a classy game that points to precocious talent not seen in Indian badminton. He’s a smart cookie and has the entire gamut of the game in terms of strokes to beat any opponent on a given day. Yet, days like today happen with recurring regularity, and realising his absolute potential gets deferred by yet another year.
India’s men’s singles players are the talk of the town – and clearly Kidambi Srikanth is the leader of the pack. But where this pack has lacked the sting is in scything through the draws on the big occasions like Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu have shown.
The grit went missing these last two days at Dubai, and it’s tough to tell if it was the remnants of the injury, general rustiness from the break or yet another opportunity missed for which he will kick himself and stew in the ensuing regret.
Against Viktor, on court conditions that aren’t exactly suiting him, Srikanth had shown the intent and the game to defy the favourite – beat back the world champion. But Axelsen in the form of his life, and especially towering on days when he gets the early propulsion, muscled through.
Against Chou, Srikanth again left it till late to take off. 0-5 down is nothing for a bloke who has the variety in strokes to equalise at will. But conceding the psychological advantage to his opponents is a habit which sees Srikanth make life terribly difficult for himself. Like at the World Championships against Son Wan Ho – whom he had beaten with class previously – it gives opponents hitherto haunted by his enigmatic game, an opening to believe. From there, they can grit it out – like Chou did , even as Srikanth’s own game crumbled coming under the sustained pressure of the lead.
Chou was sharp in his attack on a court where shuttles didn’t enjoy the tailwind of the drift – most shuttles swung in, and the only drama the birds were capable of was in decelerating near the net and falling teasingly short. Srikanth wasn’t moving too well, though he had his fair share of patented net kills and cross drops after striding to the forecourt in his inimitable way. His smashes didn’t whiz deep though and Chou was sturdy in his defense.
Still, from 12-19 down, the Hyderabadi would start looking threatening with a six-point flurry, including a long rally where he’d have his opponent on all fours. It was sheer momentum of the start that helped Chou pull out the first set, even as Srikanth’s finishing lacked the punch on the kills.
The hangover carried on to the second, where despite 10-7, and 13-9 leads, Srikanth wasn’t able to pull away as rallies got longer. As such, he had the better of the longer rallies, but his trademark knockout punch to finish off games was missing, as Chou levelled at 17-all from 14-17 down. Suddenly a one-set deficit seemed too high a mountain to climb, and that sheer grit looked glaringly missing.
It would be wrong to conclude that Srikanth lacks in grit – 5 SS titles don’t come without some amount of plucky mettle. But like at the Worlds, where he seemed to find his groove very late in the match against Son Wan Ho, here too against Chou, Srikanth would allow the mini-setbacks to wash over him and bury his hopes of the big year-ender.
Going forward, playing the slow shuttles – with all its accompanying finery of long rallies and ugly dogfights of points – will be something Srikanth will have to work on. “He obviously has the talent to win titles,” says former international and now coach Aravind Bhat, who reckons if anyone can course-correct, it is Srikanth. “He’ll need to put in 6 months to a year of dedicated training for slow courts where he’s not naturally comfortable. He has the strokes, he has everything. It’s just about simulating slow court conditions, work on the attitude needed to negotiate those rallies and the small tactical changes. He’s young and there’s no doubt he’ll do it,” Bhat says.
It’s three years to the Olympics still, and Srikanth can afford to take his time to learn his lessons at leisure. Still, for someone so feted on the pro circuit, it will be expected that he sets the CWG and the Asian Games gold as his target. For someone of his calibre, drawing a blank at Worlds, Olympics and the SS Finals seems odd. The bitterest disappointment will be felt by the man himself.