Does Australia Superseries win put Kidambi Srikanth among front-runners for World Championship crown?

It will be up to the coaching staff at the Pullela Gopichand Academy to keep Kidambi Srikanth physically strong and mentally resilient during the two months before the world championship, if the ambitious young Indian is to have a real chance of bringing home the most coveted title, bar the Olympic gold, in the sport.

Shirish Nadkarni June 27, 2017 13:33:10 IST
Does Australia Superseries win put Kidambi Srikanth among front-runners for World Championship crown?

India has produced two All England men’s singles champions, but never a winner of the official world badminton championship. However, that aberration might just about be set right in two months’ time.

Prakash Padukone won three consecutive tournaments, the Danish and Swedish Opens, and the All England, in the space of three successive weeks in February-March 1980, to be the most dominant player in the world in the first half of that year, and the odds-on favourite to win the world championship in Jakarta, later that year.

Unfortunately, a heel injury slowed him down, and he ended up losing to Indonesia’s Hadiyanto, whom he had thrashed by a 15-0, 15-10 scoreline at the quarter-final stage of the All England, a few months earlier. Hadiyanto went on to be a bronze medalist in that tournament comprehensively dominated by the home players, with eight-time All England champion and all-time great Rudy Hartono winning the gold at the expense of compatriot Liem Swie King.

Does Australia Superseries win put Kidambi Srikanth among frontrunners for World Championship crown

Kidambi Srikanth beat reigning world champion Chen Long to win Australia Open Superseries title. Twitter/ @BAI_Media

When the world championship was next held, three years later in Copenhagen, Padukone, at the age of 28, was not quite the same player he had been during those heady months of 1980. He made it to the semi-finals, but had to remain content with a bronze medal, as Indonesian Icuk Sugiarto edged fellow-countryman Swie King by the proverbial rat’s whisker, at 18-17 in the deciding game of a magnificent 100-minute battle, to take home the gold.

With the world championship cycle being cut to two years instead of three, there was a faint chance that Padukone might do the unthinkable at Calgary in 1985. Alas, it did not quite work out, and the title was bagged by the diminutive Chinese player Han Jian, with the limitless stamina and the impenetrable defence, at the expense of the twinkle-toed stylist, Morten Frost of Denmark. That was the start of total Chinese domination of both men’s and women’s world titles for the next six years.

When Pullela Gopichand won the All England crown in 2001, with an amazing and totally unexpected 15-12, 15-6 triumph over China’s Chen Hong (who was to reach four finals at that prestigious tournament, winning the title in 2002 and 2005), there were hopes that he would add the world crown in Seville, Spain, later that year.

But it became clear that the Indian had produced one supreme effort at the 2001 tournament in Birmingham, and that; in spite of his iron will and temperament, his badly damaged knee would not hold up to the rigours of having to play five tough matches in a row to win the world championship. The Seville event was won by the consistent Indonesian Hendrawan, who eliminated elegant strokemaker Peter Gade of Denmark in the final.

At Anaheim in 2005, a decision was taken to hold the world championships annually, except in an Olympic year. That year saw the emergence of a 21-year-old Chinese left-hander, who is today considered to be the best player of all time. Lin Dan reached the final that year, and fell to the wiles of Indonesia’s “backhand king”, Taufik Hidayat, with veteran Dane Peter Gade and a 22-year-old Malaysian named Lee Chong Wei taking home bronze medals.

Suffice it to say that the following decade was comprehensively dominated by the Chinese, with Lin Dan reaching five of the next six finals, and winning all of them. The only one he missed – at Paris, in 2010 – was won by his compatriot Chen Jin, who slipped it across Indonesian Hidayat in the final.

Since 2014, the world title has been in the exclusive possession of Chen Long, who won it for the first time in Copenhagen, and repeated his success in Jakarta in 2015. His victim in both finals was Lee Chong Wei, who has been the perennial runner-up, as it were, having to be content with the silver medal in the past four championships – in 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015 – though his 2014 silver was taken away from him after he was found guilty of a doping violation.

As we head into the 2017 world championships, being held in Glasgow from 21 to 27 August, there are just two former winners, Lin Dan and Chen Long, who are still strongly in contention for the gold medal, along with the four-time runner-up Lee Chong Wei. Others who have picked up bronze medals in earlier years, and are still playing, include Denmark’s Jan O Jorgensen (2015) and Viktor Axelsen (2014), Japan’s Kento Momota (2015) and Indonesia’s Tommy Sugiarto (2014).

To this list of hopefuls must be added the names of South Korea’s current world No 1, Son Wan Ho, and India’s Kidambi Srikanth, winner of the two most recent Superseries tournaments in Indonesia and Australia. The Indian has had two victories over the defensive Korean player in the space of five days, and also lowered the colours of the reigning world and Olympic champion, Chen Long, on Sunday.

Another Indian, B Sai Praneeth, who bagged the titles at the Singapore Open Superseries and the Thailand Grand Prix Gold tournaments that immediately preceded the Jakarta and Sydney events, also has the right to be considered one of the major contenders for the crown, for his only losses have been to Wan Ho and Srikanth.

It is fascinating to examine the credentials of the top contenders for the world crown. Top of the list has to be the tall, smooth-striding defending champion, Chen Long, who will make a strong bid to complete a hat-trick of titles. As the 28-year-old Chinese player showed in Rio, there is no one to match him when he is in his element. His strong defence and outstanding use of his height and reach combine to make him the likeliest candidate to win at Glasgow, if he is fit and healthy.

Chen Long’s performances in recent tournaments – which he has been picking and choosing – reveal that he is not totally at his best. Basically, he has been on the comeback trail after a long-lasting injury, and has not won a single Superseries title since the 2014 Denmark Open.

The Chinese ace looks more vulnerable than before, but is still capable of producing a top-drawer performance when fresh – as he showed when he decimated two dangerous players, Wong Wing Ki Vincent of Hong Kong and Anthony Sinisuka Ginting of Indonesia, in successive rounds at the start of the just-concluded Australia Open, before going the full distance against compatriot Lin Dan and Korean veteran Lee Hyun Il, and then falling to Srikanth.

Lin Dan, who totally dominated the period between 2005 and 2015, winning five world championships, gold medals at two Olympics and six All England titles, must be placed second in the list of world title contenders for his strength of temperament, versatility of strokeplay, vast experience and just sheer excellence. The sole negative in his curriculum vitae is his age – at 33, he is no spring chicken, and has shown signs of slowing down slightly and having problems lasting the course in a long-drawn encounter.

Age is also the major bugbear for the 34-year-old Lee Chong Wei, whose sustained quest for a world title and Olympic gold has been frustrated time and again by his arch-rival, nemesis and close friend, Lin Dan. In 39 meetings during the course of their great careers which have run concurrently, the Malaysian can only lay claim to 12 wins, while his great rival has won on 27 occasions, almost always on the big stage. On the one occasion when Chong Wei managed to pip Super Dan in the 2016 Rio Olympics, but Chen Long was there to deny him the gold.

In case these two rivals fight their way through the 32-player jungle in Glasgow to reach the final, it would require a braveheart to place his shirt on the Malaysian. Lin Dan has got into Chong Wei’s brain in much the same manner as Rafael Nadal has wormed his way into Roger Federer’s mind, and messed it up! However, if Chen Long reaches the final, he would be strongly favoured against either of the two veterans.

For the student of the game, it is reasonably safe to discount the chances of Korean Son Wan Ho, an honest-to-goodness player sorely lacking in charisma, who has only made it to the top of the rankings through sheer dint of labour – participating in a vast number of tournaments, reaching the final rounds of most of them, and thus piling up the points through consistent, if not spectacular, performances. It is hard to see such a player going through the full course of an event as important as the Worlds.

30-year-old Dane Jorgensen, a losing semi-finalist at the 2015 world championship in Jakarta, looks to be past his best, and has faced defeat on the last two occasions that he has bumped into Srikanth – at the Rio Olympics and Indonesia Open this year. Axelsen, after winning the Dubai year-ending grand finals last December, has been in woeful form, and has been losing to all and sundry.

The same goes for the 29-year-old Tommy Sugiarto, who has slid alarmingly on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ladder, to a current rank of 28th in the world. Again, as an essentially defensive player, Sugiarto would find it difficult to go the distance past fit, aggressive players. As for Kento Momota, his year-long suspension by his country’s association, on charges of illegal gambling at casinos, would preclude his chances of even making it into the 32-player elite field at the Worlds.

That brings us to Kidambi Srikanth, the winner of four career Superseries titles, and champion in the last two Superseries events, after reaching the finals of the most recent three. If current form be the sole criterion for considering the probable winner in Glasgow, then – like Abu Ben Adhem – Srikanth’s name must be seen to lead all the rest.

The 24-year-old Indian has never played better in his nine-year long professional career; he is also tactically excellent, temperamentally strong and has harnessed his natural aggression judiciously to obtain the best results for his efforts. Under the guidance of recently imported Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo, he has altered his training and playing regimen to attain a very high level of physical fitness which he lacked earlier.

The manner in which Srikanth cut down his Singapore Open conqueror, Sai Praneeth, to size at the quarter-final stage of the Australian Open showed the extent of improvement in his fitness levels. The way he played at blinding pace, clumps of two to three points against Chen Long in the closing reaches of their Australian Open final, in the best Lin Dan tradition, revealed an extra arrow in his quiver. When allied to his natural talent, these qualities made him look a most complete player.

The major question that must be asked is: Can Srikanth retain this level of fitness and intensity by the time the Glasgow tournament rolls round? There are still two months that would give all the other major title contenders an opportunity of honing their games, working on their fitness and staying healthy. And, of course, reviewing Srikanth’s play on video, and doing a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis of his game.

It will be up to the coaching staff at the Pullela Gopichand Academy to keep Kidambi Srikanth physically strong and mentally resilient during the two months before the world championship, if the ambitious young Indian is to have a real chance of bringing home the most coveted title, bar the Olympic gold, in the sport.

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