One man’s misfortune may well prove to be the key that unlocks the door to another man’s Valhalla. The withdrawal of Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei from the upcoming World Badminton Championships and the Asian Games, thanks to a respiratory disorder, could well be the stroke of luck that Indian spearhead Kidambi Srikanth requires, in his quest for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Since proving to be the standout player on the international circuit in 2017, with four Superseries titles — in Indonesia, Australia, Denmark and France — and a runner-up spot in Singapore, Srikanth has struggled for consistency and form. He lost all his three group matches in the year-ending Superseries grand finals in Dubai, and that campaign included a first loss to China’s Shi Yuqi in four meetings.
One might have thought that, on the strength of his outstanding form in the first half of 2017, he would have been a prime contender for a medal of any hue at the World Championships in Glasgow in August. Seeded eighth, the Indian fared well enough in his first three outings, with comfortable victories over Russian Sergey Sirant, Frenchman Lucas Corvee and the dangerous Dane, Anders Antonsen.
However, he was caught on an off-day in the quarter-finals by the top seeded South Korean, Son Wan Ho, whom he had beaten earlier at the Australian Open; and capitulated by a 14-21, 18-21 scoreline. Had he won that desperately close second game, Srikanth could well have struck out for a win, and a semi-final meeting with the five-time former world champion, Lin Dan of China. That would have at least assured him of a bronze medal.
This year, though, the 25-year-old Ravulapalem native is yet to win an individual singles title. He did lead the Indian squad to a gold medal finish at the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Gold Coast, but had to rest content with a silver in the CWG open singles. He was edged out in three games in the summit clash by Malaysia’s Lee, whom he had sensationally beaten in the India-Malaysia team championship clash earlier.
Lee, however, asserted his superiority in no uncertain terms when the two clashed for the third time in a month at the Badminton Asia Championships in Wuhan, and took his career head-to-head tally against the Indian to 6-1 in seven meetings.
Srikanth controversially chose to stay away from the prestigious Thomas Cup team competition, in which India fielded a below-strength team, and consequently, failed to make the quarter-finals. The Indian ace had been crowned World No 1 on 12 April, on a technicality, when the erstwhile numero uno, Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, was unable to defend points for a tournament that had been postponed by two months this year; he was to lose that top status a week later.
Srikanth’s cause has not been helped by a brace of indifferent performances on the recently concluded South East Asian circuit. Playing in the first of the four tournaments in the Asia-Pacific region, the Malaysia Open, Srikanth surrendered meekly by a 13-21, 13-21 margin to Japan’s resurgent Kento Momota.
The two gladiators clashed again at the Indonesia Open the following week, and the result was the same, although the Japanese left-hander was made to work much harder than he had done in Kuala Lumpur, for his 12-21, 21-14, 21-15 triumph. The loss in Jakarta took their career head-to-head tally to 7-3 in favour of Momota.
This large deficit in career meetings with Momota assumes added significance in light of the fact that the Indian has lost on the most recent four occasions that the two have clashed, in the course of the past three years. Three of those meetings ended via the short route, with Srikanth unable to wrest more than 13 points per game from his Japanese rival, who returned to the circuit in April 2017 after serving out a one-year ban imposed by his country’s badminton association for gambling in a casino.
What has caused the drop in Srikanth’s performance in the course of the past eight months since his triumph in Paris last November, and precipitated by that disastrous outing in the Dubai Superseries finals in December 2017? Is it that the Indian has lost some of the sting in his aggressive game, in the wake of the knee niggle he suffered in the closing stages of the French Open, and that got aggravated at the Indian Nationals in Nagpur, where he lost in the final to H S Prannoy?
To play the kind of hard-hitting game, especially his signature overhead leaping smash to the opponent’s sideline, a supreme level of fitness and speed are required; it would be impossible to execute the stroke if the player were even a half-step slow to kick off into that airborne position. It was observed at the Indonesia Open that Srikanth was able to hit those overhead smashes to both flanks in the first game against Momota, but was smothered by the clever Japanese left-hander in the next two games, and was unable to execute the stroke with the same elan.
It is also possible that Srikanth’s main opponents have been able to work out the finer points of his game through video analysis. The Indian is at his best when he attacks, but is not exactly happy when he is forced to defend. Momota was far more aggressive in the second and third games of their clash in Jakarta, and reaped a string of points by hitting his own overhead smashes to Srikanth’s backhand sideline.
Although the fifth-seeded Srikanth is second in line to benefit from Lee Chong Wei’s withdrawal from the imminent World Championships (the first being 12th seeded Indonesian, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, who is the seed closest to the bottom-most spot in the draw, vacated by Lee), the menacing presence of the No 6 seed, Momota, looms large in the lower half.
Srikanth opens his campaign in Nanjing against Vietnam’s Nguyen Nhat, and is favoured to go through for a second-round meeting with either Spain’s Pablo Abian or England’s Toby Penty. The Indian ace has never clashed with Abian, but owns a 1-0 record against Penty, though that match was played in Bangkok, five years ago.
Srikanth’s most likely third-round opponent would be the 13th seeded Jonatan Christie, who could well be a tricky customer, considering the fact that the Indian is deadlocked at 2-2 against the up-and-coming 20-year-old Indonesian, and has lost their most recent clash, in the Badminton Asia Team Championships. On paper, at least, Srikanth is the favourite, with his sixth world standing to Christie’s 15th rank.
Should the Indian win, he would go into a quarter-final reckoning with any one from amongst Indonesia’s Ginting, Taiwanese Wang Tzu Wei and Japan’s Kanta Tsuneyama, winner of the recent Thailand Open at the expense of the 2014 World Championship bronze medallist, Tommy Sugiarto.
If Srikanth plays at anywhere near the form he was in until throughout 2017 until November, he would not be troubled by any of these worthies. And that would propel him into the semi-finals, where his opponent is likely to be one from amongst these four seeded players — South Korea’s Son Wan Ho (No 4), Japan’s Momota (No 6), Indonesia’s Sugiarto (No 15) and Denmark’s Antonsen (No 16).
Even a loss in the last four would assure Srikanth of a bronze, though, if he were to manage a fourth victory in 11 meetings with the red-hot Momota, who is undoubtedly the dark horse in the tournament, he could well improve on the colour of the medal.
No Indian has won an official World Championship gold, though Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu have come heartbreakingly close in 2015 and 2017, respectively. Kidambi Srikanth has all the credentials to set the record straight.
Updated Date: Jul 28, 2018 15:01 PM