One sign that India's stature as an emerging powerhouse is being recognised in the badminton world can be found on the sidelines of every court where Indian players are in action. Three years ago, you would not have spotted more than a couple of support staff of teams from other countries recording matches of Indian shuttlers at an event. Now, there are at least 10 cameras capturing every leap, every net shot, every smash, every emotion for coaches and mind readers of rival teams to analyse.
Unlike the two women shuttlers, Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu who have been the torchbearers of Indian badminton on the world stage for the last six years or so, 2017 has seen their male counterparts coming to the party. Leading the pack is Kidambi Srikanth, who will play his third consecutive Superseries final on Sunday. While he lost to his training partner B Sai Praneeth at the Singapore Superseries Open, he conquered the Indonesia Open which is a Superseries Premier title, in Jakarta. The Sydney final will see him up against Olympic champion Chen Long.
If you expect the 24-year-old to be a bundle of nerves ahead of the Long clash, well then that is not Srikanth. His antidote to worry is to get into sleep mode and his teammates say he can even sleep up to 12 hours in a day. Down Under, once he is done with one hour of training and one hour of recovery everyday, he prefers to spend the rest of the time that he is awake, watching Telugu and Hindi comedy shows on YouTube.
Though the record against Long is not in Srikanth's favour, what works for him is that he is the player in top form. Srikanth would also be conscious of the fact that teammate HS Prannoy defeated Long in the quarter finals at the Indonesia Open, which means the Chinese player despite his reputation, is not invincible. The world is also realising that India is no longer about one Prakash Padukone, one Pullela Gopichand or one Parupalli Kashyap.
Given that a lower-ranked Prannoy ended his run at the Indonesia Open, Long will be more than wary of Srikanth. Indian male shuttlers, hunting in a pack, are now acquiring the reputation of giant killers on the badminton circuit.
Those who have followed Srikanth's progress as a badminton player often point to his lazy demeanor. I believe that is a red herring. Srikanth is, in fact, a singles player who thanks to his initial training as a doubles player, is wired like one. That shows in his sense of anticipation, a necessary facet of the doubles game. Playing with a partner also trains you to think like two people. On the singles court, Srikanth thinks from both ends.
With age and experience of playing in big ticket tournaments, the application of mind is also sharper as far as Srikanth is concerned. Physio of the Indian team, Dr Kiran Challagundla, who is with the team in Sydney, says Srikanth's analysis of the game has been far better in recent months, compared to the Rio and pre-Rio days.
"Earlier he used to overplay his USP, which was to play an aggressive game," explains Kiran. "Now when he has come back after injury, he is playing more of the percentage game. He is thinking about the game better, when to play the waiting game, when to attack."
Srikanth is also more self-assured and butterflies in the stomach are an alien feeling. Earlier, he would shut himself out of social media during tournaments, apprehensive that a negative comment may upset him ahead of an important match. Now he stays connected on Twitter and Facebook, an indication that he has learnt to shut out the unnecessary surround sound and is able to control his mind better.
The Gopichand influence is evident in the team's inclination to follow a particular routine. When he won the All England Championship in 2001, Gopichand every day would eat the same fare at the same Indian restaurant and even listen only to Bhaja Govindam by MS Subbulakshmi on his walkman. Srikanth and the rest of the team too have frequented the same Thai restaurant in Sydney through the event and the Guntur boy settles for a meal of white rice and curry every day.
Srikanth, after his win over fourth seed Shi Yuqi of China, became only the fifth player in the world to contest three successive Superseries finals. Prannoy is right when he tweets that Srikanth is in beast mode. And the beauty, without a doubt, is in his game.
Updated Date: Jun 24, 2017 18:33 PM