Two-time Olympic gold medallist Lin Dan suffered a shock defeat at the hands of unheralded Indian shuttler Kidambi Srikanth in the final of the China Open Super Series
From a laidback boy with poor dietary habits, Kidambi Srikanth has become an attacking player who can quickly deploy his considerable skills against tough opponents, writes Anand Datla
Every now and then, sport throws up an epochal opportunity at unsuspecting young men and women. But only those that are best prepared and willing to believe are able rise to that transformational moment with captivating brilliance.
The past weekend was one such moment for the highest ranked badminton player in the country. Kidambi Srikanth was offered the greatest living badminton player for a contest in the dragon's own lair. A fighting defeat to China's Lin Dan would have been an acceptable result to both coach and player. But in a stunning display of tactical nous and unwavering execution, Srikanth covered the court like a man possessed. The 21-year-old, intensity dripping from his eyes, dared to draw the living legend across the net into a masterfully crafted dance routine.
Eventually, he forced Lin to stretch and retrieve a dropping bird from under the net, only to pounce on the response and tease it back to the far corner of the court. In that moment of groundbreaking brilliance, Srikanth was putting the finishing touches to a masterpiece that has the potential to redefine the young man's place in the history of Indian badminton.
Even a couple of years ago, few if any, would have expected this young man from a relatively small town in Andhra Pradesh to conquer the Chinese in their own den. Srikanth wasn't the quintessential athlete waiting to embrace greatness. Instead, he was a lethargic little boy from the hinterland, happy mostly to roll with the flow of the tide. In fact, his family - farmer father and homemaker mother - made a brave and inspired decision to allow their children to pursue sport from a young age. Krishna Kidambi was a keen cricketer who thought his kids were better off pursuing an individual sport. Srikanth appreciates the encouragement of his parents. "They were very supportive all along and allowed me the freedom to do as I liked," he says.
Even though Srikanth was playing some casual badminton in Guntur in the open spaces around his home, formal training started only when he moved to the Sports Authority of India facility in Visakhapatnam as a teenager. He started by playing doubles, living mainly under the protective shade of his elder brother, Nanda Gopal. Sudhakar Reddy, the coach there, could see the raw talent of Srikanth but was frustrated by the boy's laidback ways and poor eating habits. Besides, the younger lad was an introvert unlike his expressive elder brother. "Srikanth was easy-going," he recollects.
A year and a half after Nanda Gopal reached the Gopichand Academy, Krishna had to borrow money to fund his younger son's admission to the same place. The father really had no choice as Srikanth had started to flounder at SAI from the time his brother left for Hyderabad. "We have always been together since childhood," explains Srikanth. "My brother's support is important to me and we have always enjoyed a great relationship."
You cannot hide a persistent spark for long. Pullela Gopichand noticed this spark when Srikanth did a double at the 2011 Junior Championships in Pune. Impressed with the raw power and his instinct for battle, the coach wasted no time in nudging Srikanth into a training routine to transform him into a singles player. "Gopi sir had this trust in me from the beginning and it is due to his advice that I pursued singles," concedes Srikanth.
So far, it has turned out to be an inspirational choice for both coach and player. The secret to his attacking instincts lies in the fact that he grew up as a doubles player covering the back court. The relentless training regimen at the academy and constant exposure to world-class players helped Srikanth evolve quickly into an imposing player.
The success at the Thailand Open in 2013, a Grand Prix Gold event, turned the page for Srikanth. It was only then that he finally believed in himself as a player capable of performing against the best players on a global stage. Gaining in confidence, Srikanth rode on the energy from his Bangkok victory over Boonsak Ponsana to wrest the senior national title last year from the seasoned Parupalli Kashyap.
Srikanth's high intensity game though is exacting on his body and mind. He was often found slipping away from a position of control, failing to sustain the momentum and elevation needed for him to attack his opponents. There was also a hint of mental fickleness, as time and again Srikanth struggled to complete the kill or melted away in the vital moments of certain matches.
"We have worked on his fitness and diet, but it is a gradual process," says Gopichand. "Once we got him to improve in those areas, his confidence has increased. In the past, he would look to end the point quickly. But with increasing fitness, he is aware now that he can battle with the best."
The former All England champion points out that till last year, Srikanth was an out-and-out attacking player, but in the past few months, coaching has helped him develop other areas of his game. "At the international level, it is important to have an alternative game plan. The pieces are falling in place for Srikanth," feels his coach.
Srikanth seemed very subdued in the aftermath of the brain fever that caused him to collapse in the wash room of his academy in July. Time spent in a hospital and that heartbreaking quarter-final loss to Derek Wong in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow seem to have catalysed a bout of introspection in the brooding young man.
As it is Srikanth is an obedient pupil, willing to constantly learn and execute the plans laid out for him by his coaching staff. The world No 10 is blessed with an arsenal of weapons. Unfortunately though, Srikanth often struggled to mount a reasonable assault, mainly due to his making only scattered use of his strengths, which include amazing on-court agility and the ability to turn aggressor at the slightest opportunity.
The many hours of physically demanding exercises and a relentless practice schedule have strengthened the physical attributes of this nimble man. More important, Srikanth has finally found the key needed to unlock the cobwebs in his mind that were preventing his progression to the next level.
While Srikanth has clearly worked on his ability to manage his game and mind far better in the key moments of a match, that he could do it in the face of Lin Dan at the Haixia Olympic Sport Centre in Fuzhou is no mean achievement. But like a mountaineer in search of peaks, one conquest should lead to another. And the man from Guntur need not search too far away for inspiration. No Indian has contended for, let alone won, the All England Championships since Gopichand won it in 2001.
The All England has a special place in every badminton player's heart. Srikanth will want to chase that dream and emulate his coach. Success at the world championship next year is a possibility too, if he can remain consistent. But the ultimate prize might be some metal from the Olympics in Brazil two years from now.
After Prakash Padukone broke new ground in the summer of 1980, India had to wait an agonising 21 years for another All England champion. Given the quality of Srikanth's game, we can hope that the next wait will not be as long.