Kidambi Srikanth lost the rather one-sided India Open Super 500 final against Viktor Axelsen. The disappointment of losing out on a title, having reached the BWF Tour final after 17 months, notwithstanding there were enough positives for the former world No 1 to take from this week’s campaign.
The 26-year-old has been under pressure to repeat the exploits of 2017 when he had won four Superseries titles and staked claim to the world No 1 spot in subsequent months. The spate of quarter-final exits in 2018 only added to the pressure.
Even Srikanth spoke about breaking that streak of quarter-final appearances in 2019 as he is focused more on being his best at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and he showed enough glimpses of the path he is likely to take.
If one studied most of Srikanth’s losses in the last one year, there has been a definite pattern. While he has been playing well through the year, he was guilty of being impatient during the business end of the games and one felt that he wasn’t fit enough to push longer day after day to challenge for the titles.
But in New Delhi, where the court conditions weren’t really to his liking with the drift moving around, Srikanth showed a steely resolve and resilience to pull matches from the brink. He was not only judicious with his shot selection but also extremely patient in building a point.
Be it the first round encounter against Wong Wing Ki Vincent or the two-hour long encounters against B Sai Praneeth and China’s Huang Yuxiang in the quarter-final and semi-final respectively, Srikanth was able to test his opponents patience by keeping the shuttle in play longer, even from the disadvantage side. He forced them into either making a mistake or giving him an opportunity to go for a kill.
The game plan didn’t obviously work in the first game against Axelsen, as the Dane was clearly overpowering and Srikanth struggled to find his rhythm and the right length. But in the second game, the world No 7 showed that he could alter his game plan once the option to attack relentlessly – something which is his biggest strength – wasn’t going to work.
He then began engaging Axelsen in longer rallies and almost forced a decider when he earned two game points. To the Dane’s credit, he quickly came up with an alternate game plan and made the most of the lucky net chord break to wrap the match.
But even he admitted that the match could have gone either way had Srikanth taken that second game. “I think whenever we are playing a tournament, there is always one side where you are comfortable to play on. It was easier to control the game on the side I started on. But it was close and you never know what would have happened if Srikanth would have won the second game,” he added in the post-match media interaction.
Even chief national coach Pullela Gopichand expressed satisfaction with the way Srikanth has fought back after losing the opening game throughout the tournament and felt that it was a good sign going forward. “I am very happy with the Srikanth has progressed technically. He is also getting fitter and that is a good sign,” he added.
The technical change has been in terms of shot selection. Srikanth was willing to play more tosses and safe clearances instead of targeting the lines to find the winners and that allowed him to control the tempo of the matches a great deal.
It has definitely helped that Srikanth’s fitness levels have also improved with the 26-year-old taking a break after the Premier Badminton League to prepare for a grueling international season and opted out of the senior nationals to take care of the niggles and other fitness issues.
It may be recalled that the former India Open champion suffered a leg injury during the 2017 senior nationals in November and saw his form dip as he did not get much time to work on his fitness due to a packed calendar that included the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.
And every loss against world No 1 Kento Momota – he lost five times to the Japanese in 2018 and once already in 2019 – had further emphasised the need for a more patient approach against players with solid defence and an ability to play long matches.
Gopichand admitted that there still certain players who could continue to trouble Srikanth on the BWF Tour but was confident that the Commonwealth Games silver medallist was on the right track and should soon figure out the way to emerge on the right side of the tight scoreline.
The India Open performance was a good enough indicator of Srikanth taking tiny but firm steps in that direction. The key from here on would be to stay injury free and work on the mental approach further as the countdown to Tokyo begins with the Olympic qualification period just a month from now.
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