Kidambi Srikanth becomes first Indian men’s singles player to reach BWF World Championships finalDecember 19, 2021
Look within, they say, to find the burning embers of ambition. Kidambi Srikanth had searched for last few years and found not even dying flickers as his career careened of its once promising course. On Saturday, the act of looking within, acquired a larger dimension, when Srikanth found the blazing fight staring him in the face with cool un-twinkling Lakshya Sen eyes. His younger compatriot drew out the winner in him, with chisel strikes and hammer-net shots, before Srikanth won 17-2, 21-14, 21-18 to become the first Indian to make the World Championship finals.
There was a roar in the end, a munificent smile with raising of arms and a warm hug at the net, as the best person to celebrate this path-breaking journey with could be none other than the man from across the court – a fellow Indian, but more importantly, a fellow warrior of the badminton court. A sincere, albeit equally sweaty shoulder, to rest his head on.
Srikanth searched inside him to reach for the margins of his game, where he had to dig his heels, get dirt under his nails, gnash his teeth, hold his head in his hands, and play the unfussed smash – clean kills, not a set-up to a tap finish to dislodge his opponent.
There was no pretence to a cool head, no faking non-chalance. Srikanth left it all out there, playing an authentic bare game, all his brilliance of strokes gleaming but no hiding of the warts and all.
Ropes of clear nervousness had leashed Kidambi Srikanth into a body-bind as he failed to express himself in the opening set. Being the senior, more experienced shuttler, a former World No 1 to boot, the pressure to not lose was on him. The older Indian looked flappable, jittery and prone to errors. There were 9 unforced errors in the opener in fact. And no progressive discovering of perfection either – he kept spraying the smash wide.
Srikanth lacked in sharpness when he went for the lines. He’s been shoddy on accuracy for a long time now – whether that sublime perfection can ve traced back to the 2017 French Open, his last title or the 2019 India Open, his last final is tough to tell. But what was different in the semifinals at Huelva was Srikanth backing himself, his depth and width of talent, the sheer class of his strokeplay, as he tweezed out winners from Sen’s octopus like all-reaching tentacles.
Forced to play out of his comfort zone of blitzing attack, dragged into a scrap, Srikanth was riddled with mistakes. His confidence shot is the thwack tap of the net. It stayed coy. Instead out came the blistering smash from mid-court, the steep down to end all debates.
Sen’s far from a mug in defense, and he was retrieving an audacious number of returns sending them back. Frankly that was enough to put Srikanth off. When the shuttle kept coming back from the middle, he would go for the lines and botch it up – long, wide, gasp, head in hands, grimacing face, broken man on haunches.
But then he would get up again, and start from scratch. Srikanth has too much quality to be overpowered by Sen. He has too much quality to be downed by anyone internationally too, except he gets himself into such mental knots that the brilliant game never gets a look-in when pressure piles up. At Huelva, in the hometown of Carolina Marin, the audience would warm up to the two Indians, though leaning towards Srikanth whose game and its lilt can automatically mesmerise.
On Saturday, he fought. Only for the next point. There were long rallies he lost. But there was always a fresh idea brewing to be tried. Sen was tiring, but so was he. Two gorgeous down the line smashes – those unfettered hits punctuated all these puddles of pressure in which he splashed. Falling back 8-11 in the opener he let things drift in the opener for 21-17 set to Sen.
Going all out
He would start the second with aggression and anger. There was a jaw-dropping behind the back backhand retrieve, and Sen matched him save-for-save. He can sleepwalk through his net game – incidentally Sen aces it too – and that was dependable, but life was on the edge in the backcourt. 4-8 down, he would level at 9-9 and spend Set 2 getting Sen to mis-hit more than claim his own winners, finally pocketing the second to force a decider.
In the third, Sen was visibly tired and Srikanth put the revs on his smashes, a lot of shoulder on the steeplings. At 7-9 Sen played a casual flick parry – a no look blind slash that showed the difference between fearless youth and pressured reputation. Srikanth would get past all that, muttering when he botched things, and keeping his head, holding his instinct to blindly go blazing into doom.
At 10-13 in decider though, Srikanth had had enough. He would gleam out the sword and go all-guns attack, raining down smashes, many cross, one straight down to stamp his foot down. In the end, Lakshya Sen didn’t have the growling hunger in the stomach to deny Srikanth. A hug sealed the finalist’s march into a bigger war.
There were no coaches, abiding by tradition, and allowing the two Indians to think for themselves. Coaches weren’t missed either, two men in a thriller sufficed. The two belong to different academies at Hyderabad and Bangalore, often pitted as bitter rivals. But India’s men’s singles has always been a chilled bunch, united by their love for the sport and soldiering on in their struggles to carve a niche while being overshadowed by women’s singles. Badminton, and not bad blood was going to dominate this showdown.
Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu have set the highest standards of civility battling across the court, and Indian badminton has ensured that deeper the rifts, louder the rancour, more the medals from proving a point. Here it was for a place in the final, and two opponents who didn’t need edgy enmities to drive them on. An unprecedented place in the final of World Championships was enough.