The conditions are slow at the KD Jadhav Indoor Hall, Viktor Axelsen is undoubtedly the world’s best player at the moment and Srikanth Kidambi can be hit-and-miss on any day. These were known facts before their round of 32 match at the India Open Super 750 on Wednesday.
So a straight-games win for Axelsen against Srikanth shouldn’t result in what could only be described as a little bit incredible. Not because of the 21-14, 21-19 scoreline in 41 minutes. But because of the manner in which it ended.
In the second game, Srikanth had a massive nine-point lead at 14-5. He was bouncing around on the court, his attacking game firing, the crowd roaring, the arena buzzing, and Axelsen wondering what the heck hit him. But in a turn of events as extreme as Srikanth’s lead felt, the Danish superstar masterminded a Houdini Act to break himself free – not with magic, but with the steadiness that comes with the belief he possesses at the moment – to complete the win in 41 minutes.
“I still can’t believe I managed to win that match,” Axelsen told BWF in the mixed zone, still catching his breath.
“I didn’t feel at all good in the second game, Srikanth stepped up and suddenly he locked me in. Yeah, really surprising. However, I am really happy that I managed to win in straight games. So, it’s not easy to come from a hot humid country (Malaysia) to a rather cold New Delhi. So I am trying to adapt in the best way possible.”
For Srikanth, it would go down as a golden opportunity missed. A defeat to Axelsen is nothing alarming, but losing that big a deal with the home crowd having his back, must sting. The decider might have been all too easy for Axelsen, who knows. But a physically exhausted Dane versus an electric crowd rallying around Srikanth... you could possibly think Srikanth stood a chance.
If disbelief was Axelsen’s reaction, Srikanth knew he missed out. Errors... unforced, uncontrolled... an old foe.
“Overall I think I played well but just couldn’t really finish a few points,” Srikanth told reporters after the match. “Even in the first game, even it was 14-16 or something, I just had a few tap-outs and a few smash-outs. Again, in the second game, at 19-18 I hit a tap out when it touched the net and went out. Lot of positives to take from it. But need to work a lot.”
The Srikanth on display today from the word go was akin to the one we saw at Thomas Cup where he went undefeated during India’s historic triumph. He wasn’t just going through the motions, he was living every rally, reacting to both good and bad shots. He scratched his head sometimes, he looked on in evident wonderment at others when Axelsen defended his way out of improbable situations. But he also was pumped up after his smashes landed in, after his delightful net-play had Axelsen in a fix.
“I went in thinking I can win, you know. But I think after 14/15 in the second set, it was just about being there till in the end, but I did too many mistakes and then gave him the opportunity to comeback,” Srikanth conceded.
Indeed, just a few blips in the opening game and a series of mistakes in the second – coupled with a sensational fightback from Axelsen – was all it took.
“Overall physically, I have not recovered from last week yet. Long travel, five and half hours. But now I have some more hours tomorrow, so I am trying to recover in the best way possible,” Axelsen said before adding a word of appreciation for the fans. “I am only happy to see so many badminton fans in the stands, it was a great atmosphere. Of course they support their countryman. I was just very happy to pull out the win today.”
For Srikanth, it is back to the drawing board. The thrill he provides on court when on song is often unmatchable among Indian shuttlers, but the errors once again proved to be his undoing.
He said, “I think it’s really important at the moment to cut down the errors. But again, if [the question about changing something in my game] is regarding the strategy then I should sit with my coaches and think, understand what wrong. I was really doing exceptionally well till a point in the second set, gave him too many easy points after that. It was just about finishing the game, that’s it.”