Australia Superseries: Kidambi Srikanth's astute tactics, controlled aggression key to success in final
Kidambi Srikanth knew he had a very real chance of administering the knockout punch to one of the three living legends of the sport, but that it required careful planning and execution. And, by God, did he do it in style!
Kidambi Srikanth produced one of the finest performances of his nine-year long career at the Sydney Olympic Park Sports Centre, as he gave two-time world champion and Rio Olympics gold medalist Chen Long a true badminton lesson while notching a 22-20, 21-16 triumph in the men’s singles final of the Australian Open Superseries badminton championships.
It was not so much a case of vintage badminton on display as a brilliant exhibition of tactical play and controlled aggression, while bringing to heel one of the most accomplished exponents of the game.
Much more than the top prize of $56,250 that the Indian won for his efforts in his third consecutive Superseries final, it was the mature play and temperamental equilibrium of the 24-year-old Srikanth that delighted his myriad supporters. Ranked 11th on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ladder, the Guntur-born youngster had gone into the match with the knowledge that he had never beaten his 28-year-old adversary in their five earlier meetings.
However, he had been in sparkling form, right from the time of the Singapore Open, two months ago, when he had been beaten in the final by compatriot and sparring partner, B Sai Praneeth. After a fine showing at the Sudirman Cup mixed team event, he had bagged the Indonesia Open Superseries Premier crown last week, after downing current world No 1, Son Wan Ho, in the semi-finals, and surprise finalist, qualifier Kazumasa Sakai of Japan, in the title clash.
At this Australia Open, he had repeated his Jakarta triumph over Wan Ho in the second round, and then gained sweet revenge for his Singapore Open final loss by overcoming Sai Praneeth in the quarter-finals. By now in raging hot form, he steamrolled China’s No 4 seed, Shi Yuqi in the penultimate round, and pronounced himself ready to take on the charismatic, smooth-moving Chen Long for the title.
Srikanth did not skimp on his homework; he worked out his game plan before the onset of the final. With the full realisation that Chen is quite happy defending against big hitters and then converting defence into attack, the Indian bided his time and used his big smash only when he was sure that his rival had been pulled out of position. He generally preferred to use the steep half-smash or the fast drop to either flank, to pull the Chinese player to the net, to engage him in a dribbling duel.
Only when Chen boosted the shuttle to the midcourt did Srikanth employ the power smash and swift follow-up to the net for the easy put-away. Otherwise, he kept the rally going with either a wristy deep toss or another fast drop. It was carefully controlled aggression, retaining control of most of the rallies. The Chinese star did not get the rhythm he craved, because his opponent did not fall into his normally predictable pattern of dribble-smash-followup-tap.
Of course, it helped the Indian’s cause that the world champion, on the day, seemed a wee bit slower on his feet than normal, thanks to the titanic battles he had waged on the previous two days against veterans Lin Dan of China and Lee Hyun Il of South Korea. Srikanth, on the contrary seemed light on his feet and full of running; and did not appear short of breath at any stage of the 46-minute summit clash.
“It has helped me enormously that my new coach changed my workout routine,” Srikanth admitted, after the match. “I have managed to improve both my speed and my stamina.” Indeed, the new techniques that Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo has brought to the table at the Hyderabad-based Pullela Gopichand Academy have seen a marked improvement in the performance levels of at least three Indian players – Srikanth, B Sai Praneeth and HS Prannoy.
There was an added advantage for Srikanth on the day – the shuttles used on Sunday were slightly slower than those used on the preceding days. It did not make too much of a difference to Chen, who uses his 6’ 2” height to keep the shuttle down most of the time. But for Srikanth, who needed his tosses and clears to stay within the baseline, it was a big boon. He rarely lost a point during the entire match through hitting the shuttle beyond the baseline.
The Indian reversed an early 1-3 deficit to a 5-3 lead, and went into lemon-time with a slim 11-9 lead, but found the Chinese ace piling on the pressure to neutralise the advantage. Scores remained neck-and-neck until Long converted a 15-17 deficit into a 19-17 lead, and appeared set to bag the first game. It was Srikanth’s turn to up the pace and move to game-point 20-19 with a superb overhead sideline smash.
Even though the world champion forced deuce, Srikanth turned the tables on him with a fabulous crosscourt backhand block return off a hot Long smash, and then sealed the opening game with an overhead forehand half-smash, at a time when Chen was ready to parry the full-blooded kill. That particular stroke bore mute testimony to the Indian’s maturity.
In the second game, Srikanth broke away into a 6-2 lead, only to see Chen snap at his heels and force parity. Nevertheless, the Indian went into the interval with an 11-9 advantage. From that point onwards, he always maintained a lead of two to three points, all the way to the tape.
Along the way, Srikanth revealed a newfound talent – of playing a couple of rallies at a blinding pace, to snatch a couple of quick points, in the manner patented by the great Lin Dan. So rattled was Chen by this cobra-like attack that, at 16-19, he served into the net, and then pushed the shuttle long, to concede a wonderful victory and a fourth career Superseries title to the Indian who should find himself among the top half-dozen when the BWF rankings are updated next week.
Those with long memories will place this particular Srikanth victory on a slightly higher pedestal than his win over Lin Dan in the 2014 China Open final. At the time, the Indian was a callow youth of 21, who had gone into the title clash with few expectations, and had been able to catch a somewhat overconfident Super Dan on the wrong foot.
This time, despite his awful head-to-head record against Chen Long, Srikanth knew he had a very real chance of administering the knockout punch to one of the three living legends of the sport, but that it required careful planning and execution. And, by God, did he do it in style!
The world number seven Indian will next play Hong Kong's world number 34 Cheung Ngan Yi in the group stage.
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