No Indian man had ever reached the final of the badminton World Championships before Huelva 2021 began. We knew that was going to change on Friday when Srikanth Kidambi and Lakshya Sen set up an all-Indian semifinal in the chaotic top half of the men’s singles draw. Even before the tournament three of the top eight seeds withdrew, while the upsets happened once the tournament kicked off too. In all the madness, Srikanth and Sen kept their calm and made it to the business end to guarantee a finalist for India.
But if there were any worries that the match would be a straightforward one for the experienced former World No 1, 20-year-old Sen put that to bed with a gritty performance. Srikanth eventually triumphed in a battle of will and wits, but the battle of skills was rather even throughout as both the shuttlers had reasons to smile in the end.
A fabulous back-and-forth game of badminton saw both players exchange high quality shots at the net, while Srikanth repeatedly tested Sen’s superb defence.
So it was Srikanth who etched his name in the history books by becoming the first Indian man to reach the finals of the BWF World Badminton Championships with a come-from-behind win over compatriot.
The 28-year-old Srikanth won 17-21 21-14 21-17 in a thrilling contest against 20-year-old Sen that lasted an hour and nine minutes.
Srikanth will finish with either silver or gold, while Sen signed off with a bronze on debut, joining the legendary Prakash Padukone (bronze in 1983) and B Sai Praneeth (bronze in 2019) as the male Indian medal winners at the showpiece.
India’s PV Sindhu has won two silvers, besides two bronze and the coveted gold in 2019, while the women’s doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa had also won a bronze, in 2011. Also, Saina Nehwal has a silver and a bronze to her name in the marquee event.
It was a huge moment not only for Indian badminton but also for world No. 14 Srikanth, who had endured injuries and a loss of form which saw him miss the Tokyo Olympics this year, since winning four Super Series titles in 2017.
Here’s how the match panned out:
The two engaged in some exciting rallies with Srikanth being a step ahead initially but Sen managed to claw back at 4-4 and then at 6-6 with some superb shots. Sen grabbed the lead at 8-7 with Srikanth going wide but he soon drew parity with a cross-court smash.
Srikanth conceded two points with nervous-looking shots as Sen grabbed a three-point advantage at the break with a precise return at the backline. Srikanth’s aggressive strokes were negated by his wide returns as Lakshya maintained his three-point lead after the interval.
The two played some incredible rallies with Srikanth making a few superb retrievals to make it 16-16 but he rushed into a net shot and then hit wide and long as Sen again went into the lead at 19-17. Another return went wide to give Sen three match points and he pocketed the opening game.
The two continued to play at a breathtaking pace after the change of sides with Srikanth paying the price for his unforced errors. Sen made some astonishing saves and also dished out a tight net game to move into an 8-4 lead. But the experienced Srikanth kept his calm and reeled off six of the next seven points. He won a long rally and then unleashed two smashes and pushed the shuttle back to level the scores at 9-9. Another straight down-the-line smash gave Srikanth a two-point advantage at the mid-game interval.
At 13-10, Srikanth sent the shuttle long twice to allow Sen to narrow the gap. Sen erred with his length and also conceded a point at the net, while Srikanth unleashed a smash to move to 16-12.
Sen won the next two points but Srikanth outwitted his compatriot in another excruciating rally. Sen then committed too many unforced errors to hand over six game points to Srikanth, who roared back into the contest with another cross-court smash.
Srikanth started the decider with a delightful drop shot and then dominated another fast-paced rally but a few errors allowed Sen to make it 4-4. The duo moved neck-and-neck to 7-7 before Srikanth sent the shuttle wide after a 43-shot rally.
Another wide shot from Srikanth saw Sen move to the mid-game interval with a three-point advantage. Srikanth used his angled returns to trouble his younger rival, making it 10-11 after the break. Sen, however, managed to open up a three-point lead again with great defence and an attacking return. Srikanth claimed two crucial points and then, Sen committed a rare unforced error and allowed his senior opponent to make it 13-13.
Srikanth grabbed a slender 16-15 lead after winning another energy-sapping rally before making it 19-16 with a cross-court smash. A tired Srikanth missed the line next but Sen’s deceptive shot then missed its mark to hand three match points to Srikanth, who sealed it with a body return, which Sen sent into the net.
So many Spanish fans...
Thank you so much, yeah really got a huge support today. There a bunch of people sitting in the corner of the stadium and cheering. It is good to have support. No one is going to complain about that.
How does it feel to be in the final and be the first Indian men’s singles player to do it?
Frankly I didn’t think too much about it, just want to be playing well. That’s all I have been thinking in the last few months, even coming into this tournament. Really wanted to play my best and see where I am, that’s it.
Talk us through the match:
Both of us started really well. Just played well throughout the match really. First set, I was leading at some point and then he came back and then I came back ahead and then he really played in those crucial points. Second and third sets... happy to be playing well and pull off the win. He played exceptionally well in the third set, was leading at 15. Happy to pull off those points at the end.
Defensive game and sticking with rallies:
I did some mistakes today but again I played well when it really mattered. Definitely there are some areas to work on, after I go back home will analyse and then work on it.
Is Srikanth back? Really, really back?
“(big smile) I don’t know.. I probably have to see tomorrow’s match and then decide.
Any preference over Loh or Antonsen?
See, both of them have been playing exceptionally well and I just have to be at my best. Whoever it is in the final. If I have to win, I need to be at my best against either of them. Just try and recover now.— via BWF Mixed Zone
On the match
He played consistently throughout the third set and pulled out a few good points in the end. Credit to him and the all the best for him too.
Thoughts on his tournament
A good feeling to play the big tournaments. I played quite a few big tournaments like the World Tour finals and the World Championships. I think I am looking forward to going back and taking a break after this. After that will want to get back to the court and improve myself.
Talk us through the match
I think in the crucial stages I was better prepared. 2-3 quick points after 17-all in the first game and I pulled out the game. Second game had long rallies and stuff. I was not very confident with my lifts from the other end. So he could rally better. And the third game — at 15-all, 16-all… it was anybody’s game. Credit to him, he pulled it off in the end.
Srikanth’s experience helped him?
Yeah, I think there were a lot of factors. Obviously, he has played a lot of badminton… he has been a former world no 1. So he was the better experienced player on court today. I think I could have done some things better and learn from my mistakes.
Words spoken at the end of the match
It was a very long match and I just congratulated him. Good luck to him. He was saying he has to rest up and get prepared for the next match.
Ambition for 2022
Next year, I want to get back on court and become fit again. I have played quite a few tournaments and I have a few niggles here and there (points to knee). I will go back and fix them. Just want to get back to training after a short break.— via BWF Mixed Zone
Schedule for finals starting at 2.30pm IST
With PTI inputs
You can watch the highlights of the match here on Disney+Hotstar.