Srikanth Kidambi lost against Kento Momota in the first round of French Open Super 750 in Paris in October.
Without context, that statement sounds perhaps like what you would expect to read about the former World No 1 in recent times – late 2018, nearly the entirety of 2019 or 2020, or the early part of 2021.
He has been struggling against Momota for a while now; that defeat in Paris was indeed the 11th straight loss against the Japanese superstar. He has also been struggling, in general, for a while now and early exits in tournaments had become the norm rather than the exception.
It was a period that saw him slip out of top 10, miss out on qualification for the Tokyo Olympics, and largely look like a pale shadow of himself.
But context, in this case, is everything. The scoreline for the match was 21-18, 20-22, 21-19 in favour of Momota. Even if it wasn’t prime Momota, it was still Momota and it was Srikanth playing close to his best. A tight first game that was at 18-18. A second game where Srikanth saved two match points, winning four in a row from 18-20 down. A third game where he led 19-17 and then at 19-19 missed a net shot with Momota squatting on the floor. The then World No 1 got away with one, ended up winning the match. Srikanth’s tournament was over. At the end, there was a warm, longer-than-usual embrace at the net between the two.
That match against Momota in Paris on October 27 at Stade Pierre de Coubertin was the turning point of sorts that Srikanth looked back at on Sunday night. And on Sunday night, Srikanth was speaking with a medal around the neck. Not just any medal. A silver medal at the World Championships. At Huelva 2021, he became the first ever Indian male shuttler to reach the final of Worlds.
“I was always telling myself that I just need more matches,” Srikanth told Badminton Europe. “Last few tournaments have been good, from Paris I started playing really well. I couldn’t win there but the match against Momota in Paris was crucial. It really gave me huge confidence. I would have been much happier if I had converted that from 19-17 (in the decider). It was a similar scenario (to today). Then Germany, Indonesia... I played well, coming here [to Huelva]. I didn’t really think about any medal, it was only about playing my best in the next match and take it from there. It really worked.”
Even for Srikanth’s silver medal in Huelva, context is necessary. In his half of the draw, as early as the third round, Srikanth was the highest seeded player remaining. Kento Momota, Jonatan Christie and Anthony Ginting were absent from his half even before the tournament began. Srikanth did not face a single seeded opponent through the week.
But you can only defeat who is in front of you, of course. He did not have control over who played and who didn’t. Heck, he did not even know till the Thursday before the tournament started if he would be playing.
“I didn’t know if I will able to come here till last Thursday. Got to know Thursday around 5-6 pm, that I got my visa. Until I wasn’t sure. So yeah, just happy to be able to play this tournament and it has been a great week for me, I was able to play really well throughout. Would’ve loved to win even today, but will definitely try and get better,” Srikanth said on Sunday.
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Against Loh Kean Yew in the final, a straight-games defeat doesn’t quite do justice to how well the Indian played. The 28-year-old, against an opponent who was described as ‘Superman’ by third seed Anders Antonsen after the semifinal, tried everything he could. He kept things steady at the start of the match and rode on Loh’s nerves to open up a good lead but ended up losing the game.
That could have potentially resulted in the second being a cakewalk for the red-hot Singaporean. But Srikanth sought to improve and throw everything he could at Loh. He fought, he tried different plans... B, C and D perhaps. And it worked for large parts, as he lead 18-16. But then he just couldn’t finish it off and force the decider. He had his chances, but couldn’t convert. Maybe if he played a little smarter then, maybe if he took the second game and took Loh to a decider that no one had previously this week, maybe introduce a few more pressure points for the Superman... who knows.
What ifs apart, it showed the belief with which Srikanth has been playing recently. He is a confidence player and the lack of it, more than any injury he suffered, seemed to be hurting him on tour. But when he is fit and plays like he belongs, he is a joy to watch. Irrespective of the draw, of the opponents he faced, it was the gameplay that offers that hope for Srikanth, that the belief is returning.
“Few tournaments I played really well, few tournaments I couldn’t play [looking back at 2021],” Srikanth said. “Again, at a such big event, to be in the final and get this opportunity at the World Championships to win silver... something that I worked really hard for.”
He added with a weary smile of a man who was happy but equally relieved: “I’ll just try and continue to work hard, it’s a process. Lot of tournaments next year with Asian Games, CWG, another Worlds. Big year... will try and learn from this experience and work on it.”
There is the relief that the tournament ended with a medal, relief that he was going to get a break after playing non-stop over the last few months... but perhaps also relief that he has a major podium finish to show for in a year in which he missed out on the Olympics entirely.
From the disappointments in the first half of 2021, he can finish the year with a footnote that reads: there is still more to come. World No 1 in women’s singles Tai Tzu Ying has “Truly Trust Yourself” printed on her face mask because she believes the key to succeed is trusting in herself. Apart from sporting skills, it is the intangible that athletes trust to turn things around from tough spots.
So for now, Srikanth can take home belief. That he belongs at this stage again. That he has it in him to compete with the best, even if 2017 levels of success might not happen again. That he deserves to be at the deep end of tournaments. That his attacking game is still right up there with the best in the world. That there are areas he can work on and keep pushing the younger brigade. That the name Srikanth will inspire some amount of worry in his opponents’ minds.
That Sri, can.