In four previous appearances at the All England Open, Kidambi Srikanth had managed to cross the first round hurdle only once. The statistic isn’t really a comment on the 25-year-old’s ability to raise the bar in one of the most prestigious badminton tournament but probably an aberration in an otherwise impressive resume.
The reasons behind these below-par performances at the All England could range from a tough opening round to a bad day in office. But to anyone who has followed Srikanth’s journey, it is amply clear that the world number 3 needs time to get into rhythm at the start of the season after a long break and it doesn’t really help that the stature and aura of the event in every Indian players’ mind only adds to the pressure.
In the run-up to this edition of the All England, Srikanth himself had spoken about how much a title in Birmingham means to him – even calling it bigger than the Olympics.
Discounting the exaggeration behind the statement, Srikanth has definitely gone into the competition with the added pressure of being a pre-tournament favourite in the absence of world champion Viktor Axelsen and would even become the World number one if he can go the distance.
And all that pressure showed when the six-time Superseries champion took the court against Frenchman Brice Leverdez in the opening round.
Srikanth may have won four Superseries titles in 2017 but the All England was a new start and it was evident that the boy from Guntur wasn’t really in the perfect frame of mind. He was extremely tentative, trying to avoid making mistakes rather than looking to score points in the opening game, and that was the only invitation Leverdez needed to go for the kill.
The conversation between Srikanth and coach Pullela Gopichand at the end of the first game was a clear indicator that the latter was not really happy with the approach of his ward and wanted him to show some energy.
It was the same kind of conversation the duo had found themselves having during the BWF World Championship quarters in Glasgow last year when the 25-year-old buckled under the pressure of expectations, as he was the favourite against the Korean Son Wan Ho. By the time, he receovered his composure and fought back in the second game, it was a tad too late.
But on Wednesday, Srikanth was quick to make amends at the start of the opening game and once the jump smashes and deceptive drives started to flow from his racket he looked a completely different player.
And the Indian looked in complete control till the first half of the decider when he opened up a 11-6 lead.
But then Leverdez has made a living out of troubling pre-tournament favourites in major events and can be a difficult preposition to deal with when he has nothing to lose.
With a victory in sight, Srikanth again made the mistake of playing safe rather than maintaining the tempo. It allowed Leverdez to seize back the initiative with six straight points and take a 14-12 lead in the process.
Keeping composure at the end
To Srikanth’s credit, he did not get hassled with the sudden change in momentum and showed the willingness to hang on till Leverdez made an error or went for the kill whenever the opportunity presented itself.
It was the latter that saw him save the match point at 20-19 and then he let Leverdez hit the down the line smashes out to clinch the next two points and the match.
“I am lucky to pull this match out. This definitely gives me a lot of confidence. I hope that I can play some more matches here and get the momentum that I require,” Srikanth told the BWF website after the match.
More than the confidence, the tough win in the opening round would have helped him settle the nerves that were clearing flaring up in the opening round encounter. He has another tricky match to negotiate in the second round against China’s Huang Yixiang on Thursday.
And if Srikanth can see off Huang’s challenge, then the world number 3 would be definitely the man to beat in the business end of the tournament.