If one thought that the former world No 1 would find his mojo back in the new year, Srikanth Kidambi’s chances of making it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics seem to be hurtling down towards the hopeless zone would have liked to get his act together in the new year.
Srikanth was knocked out of the Indonesia Masters Super 500 in the first round after losing to Indonesia’s Shesar Hiren Rhustavito in three games. This was his second successive first round exit in 2020 and understandably it left badminton fans wondering what has gone wrong with the 26-year-old, who was touted as a sure shot medal prospect just over 20 months ago.
The 2018 Commonwealth Games silver medallist was on a high after an unprecedented 2017 in which he won four Superseries tournaments and ended up reaching the world ranking summit the following year, albeit only for a brief period.
Since then he has reached just one final on the BWF circuit, apart from playing three semi-finals. During this period, Srikanth has also struggled with a knee injury that forced him to pull out of China Open and Korea Open in September 2019.
And every time he was asked about the drop in performance, Srikanth spoke about the need for getting enough time to train and recover from injuries.
“I was getting injured and then coming back and training for a week or two and then playing a tournament, and then I’m pushing too much at tournaments and injuring myself again,” Srikanth had said a few months ago. “I want to go back and train for a longer period, and I think if I can do that from now, for the next 12 months, I will be in good shape for the Olympics.”
Struggling for form
But before he can think of Olympics, Srikanth first needs to qualify. Though he is still ranked No 12 in the world, the 26-year-old has slid to 23rd in the Race to Tokyo rankings and is fourth in the pecking order of Indian shuttlers having a chance to book an Olympic berth. He is currently behind world championship bronze medallist B Sai Praneeth, national champion Sourabh Verma and the experienced Parupalli Kashyap.
He now needs to break into the top-16 by the end of April this year and at least be the second highest ranked Indian to have a chance of taking the flight to Tokyo in July and knows that reaching the semi-finals or finals of one of the major tournaments is his best option to achieve that goal.
And the Malaysia and Indonesia Masters were expected to kick off that resurgence. After reaching the semi-finals of the Hong Kong Open and ending the year 2019 with a quarter-final appearance at the Syed Modi Super 300 event in Lucknow, Srikanth announced he will not play the Premier Badminton League to focus on BWF circuit.
But the performances in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta would hardly do anything to build his confidence levels — mind you, that has nothing to do with the fact that he lost in the opening rounds of both these tournaments.
More than the results, it is the way he played that should worry him and the coaches.
Srikanth was definitely the underdog against world No 2 Chou Tien Chen in the opening round of the Malaysia Masters and given the Taipei shuttler’s form it was always going to be an uphill task. But what was not expected was the way the Indian succumbed in the second game. He was guilty of making too many errors and scored just five points in the second game.
In Jakarta, the world No 12 was much better in the opening round against the lower-ranked Rhustavito, against whom he had lost both the previous matches. Srikanth wasn’t at his best even against the Indonesian and made quite a few elementary errors during the net exchanges, an area which is considered to be one of his strengths.
He also lacked the patience required to win the long rallies against Rhustavito and it was quite evident that Srikanth had little confidence in his ability to build a point. On many occasions, he did not take his opportunities to go for the kill.
This tentative approach had creeped in to Srikanth’s approach when he returned to the BWF circuit in 2018 after recovering from the muscular injury he suffered during the senior nationals. It did not help his cause that coach Mulyo Handoyo, who played an important role in his rise to the top, left the Indian team soon after for personal reasons. He did put up a brave front then, saying it was a matter of time he found his rhythm and fitness if he got enough time to train and get back to his peak fitness.
But Scroll.in understands that coaches and even fellow players in the Gopichand Academy have over the last few months felt that Srikanth wasn’t giving 100% in training. It was not just after-effects of injuries, but the pressure of expectations from himself and from those around him has been weighing him down.
The general view among those working with Srikanth is that only chief coach Pullela Gopichand could sort out the issues in his mind if he could give Srikanth more personal time. But given the number of men’s singles players in the race to qualify for Tokyo, that seems to be difficult in the near future.
To make matters worse, Srikanth isn’t going to get much time to train between tournaments as he will have to play as many events as possible to try and score ranking points to qualify for the Olympic Games.
One would have expected the semi-final run in Hong Kong to rejuvenate Srikanth as he was lucky to get a walkover from world champion Kento Momota in the opening round and Chen Long conceded the quarter-final due to injury. That lucky break got the 26-year-old back in the hunt for a Olympics slot but whether he achieves that goal will depend on how soon he can find a way to put behind the self doubts and go out and take the attack to his opponents.
A first win over Rhustavito in opening round of the Thailand Masters next week should be a good starting point.