The famous jump-smash had found its mark and he slammed his racket down. His teammates ran on to the court and hoisted him in celebration. India had won the prestigious Thomas Cup for the first time. Srikanth Kidambi had taken his team over the line. World team champions.
In the quarterfinals, he put out a fist and roared after helping India take the lead against Malaysia. As was the case in the semis, when he beat Danish world No 3 Anders Antonsen in what was his longest battle of the tournament in Bangkok.
For someone who is known to carry himself with incredible restraint, these were all immensely passionate reactions. And understandably so. After all, India had not only created history by reaching the semifinals and securing their first-ever Thomas Cup medal, but they went a couple of steps further and won it all.
And the most successful player for India in the tournament was Srikanth. He was the only one in the squad with the distinction of playing six matches and winning each of them (HS Prannoy won five out of five). He wasn’t placed as the first singles player – that spot belonged to the irresistible world No 9 Lakshya Sen – but he was indeed the leader of the group. The captain. The one who the team knew it could fall back on.
“Being in a team environment had a big impact, just spending time with the teammates and coaches,” Srikanth’s brother Nandagopal Kidambi told Scroll.in.
“When it comes to matches for India, Srikanth is someone who comes with different strategies because he plays a crucial role in the team. That is also the reason why he’s wanted as captain. I think this was an important aspect for him this time.”
Srikanth revelled in the team spirit, jumping with joy as he and his teammates notched up one memorable victory after another. And during play, there was a steely determination about him which was unmissable. The world No 11 came up against players ranked above him, he was put in must-win situations, but he seemed unfazed through it all.
Srikanth Kidambi’s results at the 2022 Thomas Cup:
After India finished second in their group, they were pitted against a strong Malaysian team in the quarterfinals. Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty had helped India draw level in the tie after Lakshya lost his opener to Lee Zii Jia. Srikanth then took centre stage and served up a straight-games win over Ng Tze Yong to help his team take another step towards securing a historic medal.
Then, in the semifinals, Srikanth delivered possibly his best performance of the tournament. His head-to-head record against Antonsen stood at 2-3, but Srikanth had emerged victorious in their previous meeting and the man from Denmark had also lost two of his previous matches in the tournament.
The first game was neck and neck throughout before Srikanth pulled away and took the lead in the match. But Antonsen responded quickly and kept his nose ahead in the second game to force a decider. The Dane had the momentum and the pressure was on Srikanth as the tie was locked at 1-1. But instead of letting pressure get to him, he reset and found another gear to win seven points in a row and take a huge lead to the third game interval. He went on the offensive at every opportunity before closing out the win in an hour and 20 minutes.
In the final, Srikanth went into his match in a much stronger position as both Lakshya and Satwik-Chirag had won their matches. The onus was on world No 8 Jonatan Christie to keep Indonesia – the defending champions and most successful country in the history of the tournament – alive in the tie. But, as Srikanth said after the match, the two earlier wins for India meant he just had to go and have fun with an extra cushion.
And in the first game, Srikanth took full advantage of the pressure his opponent was under. After the opener got to 15-all, he won the next six points to leave India just one game away from the title. But that can be a tall order when the stakes are this high, and Christie ensured he wasn’t going to go away without a fight.
In the second game, the Indonesian raised his level and kept pace with Srikanth after trailing by three points at the interval. He won seven of the next nine points to take a 16-13 lead as the errors from the Indian’s side started to mount.
But Srikanth regained his composure to fight back. It went to 18-all, 19-all, 20-all, and 21-all. It was a breathtaking spell of badminton from both players. And when the pressure was at its highest, when the margin for error for none, when his teammates and country waited with bated breath – Srikanth elevated his game and sealed the deal.
The jump-smashes, the drop shots, the subtle changes of direction, the artistry had been there throughout, but what stood out once again was the character shown by Srikanth. He was the captain of the Indian team and he led from the front by remaining unbeaten in the tournament.
The Thomas Cup triumph capped-off a memorable few months for Srikanth. After being hampered by injuries for years and missing out on the Tokyo Olympics, the former world No 1 had shown what he is capable of by winning the silver medal at the World Championships late last year in Spain.
But his gold medal in Bangkok trumped it all. It helped his team become an indelible part of badminton history, and it re-established him as one of the finest players of his generation.
“When he was at his peak, he got a couple of injuries which hampered his progress,” said Nandagopal. “He was out for nearly a year and a half and dealing with the pain. Injuries can’t be predicted. But the lockdown period helped him recover, he took a couple of months to understand his body to compete at the highest level. After that, he got momentum and played consistently. He started reaching quarters, semis and finals of tournaments.”
That run of good results from the end of last season has taken him to a new high.
Nandagopal said: “With him it’s simple – as long as he’s playing badminton he wants to be among the best. He wants to be at the highest level, he doesn’t want to be just any other player ranked 25 or 30 in the world. He never wants it to be that way.”
And after India’s triumph on Sunday, Srikanth suggested as much. Part of the answer when asked about how this current achievement felt when compared to the highs of his past was, “Becoming world No 1 was always a dream, I’m just happy that I was able to achieve it [in 2018]. And yes, I’m definitely working towards becoming world No 1 again.”
He’d be the first to tell you that the Thomas Cup triumph was a complete team effort, but there is no denying that Srikanth was the rock on which it was built.