Heading into 2016 - a huge year for sports fans around the world - the primary focus is on the Rio Olympic Games. And for sports fans in India, badminton is arguably the biggest medal prospect. In London 2012, Saina Nehwal delivered a bronze. Hopes are there that the Indian contingent will do better this time around.
Kidambi Srikanth is the top-ranked shuttler among the Indian men right now. The 22-year-old from Guntur, Andhra Pradesh reached as high as World No. 3 in the rankings last year, before a run of indifferent form saw him finish the year as 9th. It was, in his own admission, a mixed bag for him.
But 2016 has started off on a good note already. Srikanth, playing for the Bengaluru franchise in the PBL, upset former World No. 1 Lee Chong Wei, though he could not prevent his team's loss against Hyderabad Hunters.
On the eve of his PBL opener, Srikanth spoke to Firstpost on a series of topics, starting from his performance in 2015, to achieving his dream in 2016 - see India's tri-color hoisted in Rio.
Question: Firstly, tell me your personal assessment of 2015. What went right and what went wrong for Kidambi Srikanth in the last year?
Srikanth: Last year was a mixed bag for me. I have learnt a lot from both my mistakes and wins. As an athlete you will win and you will lose some -- but the key is to give your best always. If you win you need to work towards a bigger one and if you lose, you have to make up your mind to win the next time. Right now my focus is to play my best and seal a berth for Rio and hopefully win a medal.
What do you think it takes for you to win more titles on a consistent basis?
Hardwork. There is no substitute for it. Performance also depends a lot on how much you are willing to concentrate on your sport and not let anything else play with your mind. I have realised that if I focus on my game more than my ranking I will play well and consolidate my position any ways. So, that's the game plan.
"The challenge for me now is finding ways to keep my game effective," you told Firstpost in your previous interaction. How are you coping with the challenge of staying competitive, in terms of your strategy, technique?
In terms of strategy and technique, it depends on the opponent individually. I do a lot of homework on my opponents, watch their game closely and structure my plan accordingly - either tweak my game or adopt new techniques. Another thing I focus on is recovery and injury prevention. If you are not fit there is no point in playing because you don't want to reflect a poor performance because you did not pay attention to recovery.
It must be great to have someone like (Pullela) Gopichand to keep you on your toes. Tell us a bit about your working relationship with him.
Gopi Sir is not only a great mentor but also a role model as an athlete, as a person. He has always let me play my own game but at the same time has ensured that the level never drops. He has taught me a lot about the sport and about how the combination of skill, intelligence and hard-work will always help me. He has taught me not to get complacent with my wins but at the same time not be bogged down by failures.
2015 was a mixed bag not just for you, but for Indian badminton in general. Was it a case of keeping the best for the Olympic year?
For me personally, I have never thought of it that way. Each game was a preparation for Rio and though, like I said, it's been a mixed bag of sorts, I am confident that it will only get better from here.
Off-seasons are important as the calendar year event, yes? What does Srikanth do during his off season?
I catch up with my friends and family, go out, movies and just unwind so I come back refreshed.
Men's badminton is at an interesting phase with genuine match-winners coming up. How do you, Parupalli Kashyap, HS Prannoy and Ajay Jayaram see the competition among yourselves? Badminton is an individual sport - so is it a case of to each his own or helping each other out with technique and other things?
Oh most definitely [helping each other]. Especially this being a Olympic year there is a lot of idea exchange involved, except when we face off against each other in PBL where I represent the Bengaluru Top Guns and the rest, their respective franchises. Kashyap, Prannoy and Ajay Jayaram are all great players but my greatest competition has been, and will be only myself.
Off-seasons in sports are becoming increasingly short. How are you managing your workload? It's a tough balancing act between playing the events to keep your ranking and at the same time remaining injury-free.
As international athletes we have made our peace with the schedule and have learnt to keep up with them. It is tough but not too much. Also playing in a regular basis, internationally, helps me play more consistently on the world stage.
How do you feel about PBL - must be great to have a league with stars playing in front of home fans?
Could not have asked for a better start to start the Olympic year. PBL is a great platform to play with world-class players. Given the vast amount of knowledge and experience that is shared during the tournament it is a great thing for all the participants. Playing with Internationals rather than playing against each other will always be extremely valuable. I am playing for the Bengaluru Top Guns and given the exceptional talent we have in the team, we are looking to aim right, and fire!
Is PBL a bit of light-hearted warm up to the grueling season ahead, or do you see it as the first big event in an important season?
PBL is a 15-pointer and thus is fast and furious form of the sport. A highly pressurised situation, it teaches us to think fast and play our best. Yes it is more glamourous but the level of intensity is most definitely the same. It is an important tournament for sure, as it gives us the right momentum to start the road to Rio with.
Finally, your high point last year was to reach No 3. What do you think you need to do in 2016 to do better - go two better, in fact? To bring back a medal from Rio.
The aim is ultimately to be number one and all I need is to focus and just give it my all. There can surely be no better feeling than seeing your country's flag being raised at the Olympics and I am willing to go that extra mile and do whatever it takes to make that happen this year.