It was 10 am, Saturday morning. The road outside Hotel Taj in Mumbai was bustling with activity. The Gateway of India was already overflowing with people. The flock of pigeons were busy getting their morning breakfast, creating a ruckus. There was a steady line of cars entering the hotel. Amid all this chaos, walking out of the Taj calmly, in his black training pant and pink Yonex shirt, was Kidambi Srikanth. He approached our interview crew and there was no one accompanying him, perhaps assuming he wouldn’t be spotted. As he walks up to us, two young men, perhaps in their late 20s, come rushing towards him with a pen in their hands, asking for an autograph. And, of course, a selfie with him as well. He obliged with a smile.
This man, after all, had just become the new world No. 2.
There is an unassuming air around Srikanth, as he takes a walk with us to the spot where his interview was to be done. He speaks about his late night flight. He has a laugh about how Yonex and BWF, by printing ‘Kidambi S’ on his shirt all those years back, have made the name stick now on the circuit. And he is generally relaxed after what has been a hectic, yet tremendously successful few weeks for him – titles in Denmark and Paris, followed by his best-ever position in the BWF World Rankings. And we settle down for the interview, with the Gateway of India as the backdrop, where he takes us through the journey of being a not-so-active junior player to now becoming the second best in the world.
Excerpts from the interview:
World No 2 Kidambi Srikanth. What has changed for you? We saw those two men running out to get your autograph and click selfies. The recognition must feel good.
Nothing has changed, I feel. People will definitely start expecting more from me now, but that’s about it. The improved recognition is not just because of me, it is because the sport is growing. At the end of the day, we all have to perform at this level for the sport to be popular and I believe that’s happening now. If we consistently do well, things will only get better.
Among the current crop of players, you are perhaps the only one who is not known for his exploits as a junior. You started off playing a lot of doubles before you specialised in singles. And now you are world No 2. How did the transformation happen?
I was someone who played all three events (singles, doubles and mixed) in my junior days. And I used to win to two out of three events in most junior tournaments. When I stopped playing doubles to focus on just singles, within six months I won my first international title (in Maldives). It all started to change at the point. I knew I could win tournaments as a singles player and that’s all down to Gopi sir who had so much trust in me.
Did you particularly enjoy that change? Or did some part of you resist it, preferring to play doubles?
I always enjoyed playing singles, but I loved the attention and care from Gopi sir when I made the change from doubles. He made me train every day at 4.30 am, we used to have one and a half hour sessions. That really made a big impact on my game.
The reason we ask that is there were two major criticisms in your early days – one, that you were a bit lazy when it came to training and that maintaining a diet was not your forte. It was as if you preferred to play doubles because of that. How has that changed?
(Laughs) The truth is back then, I used love playing the sport but I never used to love training that much. When I played doubles, I used to manage perfectly fine without having to train too hard. That’s perhaps why I loved doubles initially. And when it comes to food, I can’t maintain a strict diet for a long time even now. For me now it’s about avoiding too much sugars and things like that. I stay away from pizza, burgers etc unless I’m stuck in the airport for examples, but otherwise, diet is normal.
Did you, at the junior level, play more for the love of the game than making a serious career out of the sport?
That’s how almost everyone starts, no? But after joining the academy in Hyderabad, I started training much more than earlier. Before 2009, I used only play for the most part. But since then, it’s been different.
Do you remember when you realised you had what it takes to succeed at this level? When did Srikanth know he can reach where he is today?
Not straight away to World no. 2, that’s for sure! (laughs) But after that Maldives win (2012), I knew I had it in me for singles in the international circuit. It’s just been slow progress. What helped me was that my immediate goals were always very small (short-term) From the International Challenge, I wanted to do well in Grand Prix Golds and from there to Superseries. It was not about reaching world No 1 or world No 2. It’s been a process. The small goals helped me train harder because I had an achievable target in sight. It’s just like when you set out with a goal for running 100 KM, you might not get there at the end, when you focus on 100 metres at a time, you can really push yourself.
Your brother K Nandagopal said when he was asked about your Maldives win back then that he didn’t want to talk about you per se. He didn’t want to say something that would upset you. Is that a conscious decision by the two of you?
I believe in doing things my way, that’s it. I want everything to be planned the way I like. And Nandu has always given me that freedom. He has given me that space to be my own self.
Was Nandu a big catalyst for your success?
Definitely. He moved to Hyderabad for the academy few years before me. My parents moved me to the academy only because my brother was already there. It’s the biggest factor for why I am where I am today. If he had not joined the academy, I don’t know where I would have been.
The commentators during your matches remark that some of your net shots that are so good, has come in to your game because you started as a doubles player. Do you see it that way?
No, honestly. I never felt that way, because doubles is totally a different game. It’s more about positioning and shot-making while singles involves a lot of movement, and reaching all corners of the court. I never felt it helped me in any way, but people analysing my game have a different idea. Maybe a few shots came into my game because of my doubles background, but I think you can play a shot on the court only when you train for it.
Speaking of training at the academy, what does it mean to train with HS Prannoy, Sai Praneeth, Sameer Verma on a daily basis? What are the dynamics between you guys now?
We play each other every day at training, so naturally we learn a lot from one another. Every one of us have that one special skill or a signature stroke that the others do not, and when we have the chance play so many top players in training, it definitely helps. Having five players in top 20 was just fantastic, not many countries can say that. When we train at such a high level, and you go out on the circuit to play against a tough opponent, it doesn’t feel too different. It makes me feel prepared for the challenge. All of us are pushing each other to succeed.
Movies, music, books. How does Srikanth unwind?
I don’t get too much time. Sunday is my day off and I just use that time to rest. Movies, sometimes, yes. But I would like to just be free with nothing to do on my day off. Sleep, eat, sleep eat. That’s it. (laughs)
One of the lesser known fact about Srikanth is that you used to love narrating film scripts to your close friends and how he would like to make a film one day. Do you still do that?
As a child, I always dreamt of being a director. And that is why I used to make up stories and tell my friends. I do that even today sometimes and who knows if I get a chance after I am done with badminton, I may try my hand with direction.
So do you study the art of film making in your spare time? And is there a particular story you have narrated that you will want to make in that case?
I remember most of those stories. But there is one action movie story that I really like. I know I will have to learn a lot about film making if I want to make a movie. But I don’t do any of that as of now. That can wait. For now I am only thinking of training and working hard on the badminton court.
Bonus viewing: Video interview with Smitha Nair below.