Kidambi Srikanth had been playing some of the most delectable badminton in a very long time in 2021. Pity that players are measured on black-and-white parameters like winning matches (where his wretched outings continued till March and he dawdled at No. 20 in the Race to Tokyo charts) and aren’t judged on how engaging their matches turn out.
The Badminton World Federation statement on Friday declaring the qualification race closed, finished Srikanth’s hopes of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.
While Saina Nehwal’s remains the most disappointing of non-qualifications in badminton, and Ashwini Ponnappa-Sikki Reddy had the remotest of chances, it will be Srikanth’s absence at Tokyo that’ll struggle to be justified by the player’s current form.
Those at the national camp in Hyderabad attest to Srikanth training with a spring in his step and plenty of enthusiasm over the last few months and looking sharp. But even the 28-year-old will agree that he left it too late, as the cancellations of big-point tournaments in India, Malaysia and Singapore piled on.
As things stand, the BWF has no ranking cut-off (like Top 100) for the Olympics, which means qualification extends to Emre Lale from Turkey, 94th in the Race to Tokyo list. And given the Olympics is about widespread participation, even in the event of pull-outs, those called up will likely ensure that more countries should send at least one shuttler in the men’s singles event. While a title win at Singapore could’ve helped Srikanth to within 1000 points of the Top 16 in the qualification cycle, the former World No. 1 will rue the missed chances and poor choices over the last few seasons.
Slow starts are typically Srikanth, and his leisurely pace in building momentum in a week dragged him back when half a dozen events got cancelled. But in the 70 matches he’s played since 2019, 26 went to three games, as Srikanth just couldn’t finish quick enough to either outlast his opponent or preserve energy for the next day’s face-off.
Expending energy needlessly, he didn’t display enough strength and endurance to weave five straight solid days of getting the job done.
Of his 30 losses since 2019, things got tight – reaching 19-19 or the extra-points scenario in 12 (more than a third) of those defeats, as shot selection went awry. Mental fortitude in these situations comes from the intuitive belief that there’s gas in the tank physically to fight it out, and Srikanth wasn’t quite backing himself as he failed to close out match after match.
The Hong Kong Open in November 2019 is a good example. Getting walkovers from Kento Momota and subsequently Chen Long in the quarters, Srikanth took a long time to hit the groove and lost 21-9, 25-23 to local Lee Cheuk Yiu. The Hong Kong rookie couldn’t believe his luck when Srikanth wrested momentum from him through the second, hit a purple patch mid-match, and then disintegrated from game point in a 5-minute meltdown.
At the World Tour Finals – not part of qualification – Srikanth would hit the sublime peaks of on-court movement and construction of points, but manage to lose against Anders Antonsen (21-18), Tzu Wei Wang (21-19) and NG Ka Long Angus (21-19) in the third. The difference this time, and what hinted at better form, was that he would win the opening games comfortably. His confidence shot, the net charge – a smash followed up by a snappy net kill – was back too. But it would go missing when trying to lock the match. It’ll be simplistic to call it a mental freeze since his confidence has been suspect, but this was a straight physical wobble as was evident in the dire fashion in which the last points played out.
THE 2017 MIRAGE
Srikanth’s golden season was 2017 when he won four titles, reaching five finals. It was the year when he landed crunchy sponsorship contracts – lot of noise, but not much value addition to his game. The titles had come on the back of some strict physical conditioning mandated by Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo, which helped him ace the big points in finals.
Moreover, 2017 was also the season right after the Olympics. They call it the lightweight year on the circuit: Olympic champion Chen Long was sleepwalking through his matches, Viktor Axelsen was still hitting the high notes and peaking at majors, Kento Momota was in the middle of a gambling ban, and Anthony Ginting and Antonsen were yet to emerge. Like a poacher at the goal-mouth, Srikanth pounced on that season, and built a formidable portfolio of Tour wins.
The World No. 1 rank would follow. As would his smug belief in his charmed stay at the top. An injury at the Guwahati Nationals 2017 would plant a doubt in his mind, and though he made the India Open finals in early 2019, his uber-caution on the court which made him half the player he was, minus his big lunge and explosive net attack, saw him roiled in a stream of poor results.
His last loss this year came against upcoming Toma Popov Junior at Orleans, but he’s generously spread cheer, losing to every upstart coming up the ranks – back-to-back wins for Indonesian Shesar Hiren Rhustavito, a three- gamer to Irishman Nguyen Nhat at All England (non- Qualification event) and at the Asian team event to Thai teen Kunlavut Vitidsarn. He’s not looked a part of the top tier, when going down to Axelsen at the Swiss Open even before he reached Momota. Losing inexplicably in a clutch of tournaments that he ought to have won because of light draws, and slumping against the biggies puts a big question mark on his motivation since reaching World No. 1 and the 2017 season. Even the talent-dripping Taufik Hidayat roused himself intermittently and put in the obsessive hard yards, with coach Mulyo only adding the finishing touches.
NO SENSE OF OCCASION
Missing the Olympics in a pandemic year can be explained away with the world in a flux and all the cancellations. Srikanth’s problems are very stark. For a former World No. 1 and arguably India’s best, he is yet to medal at the Worlds or even the Asiad. Not even an Asian Championship. Five tour titles do not a top career make.
He has lost to Son Wan Ho, Daren Liew and Thai Kantaphon Wangcharoen on three varied-paced courts at three editions of the Worlds before the quarters stage. The ability to peak at a biggie defines great players, and Srikanth has proved to be allergic to the big stage. He lost a valiant quarterfinal to Lin Dan at the Rio Games, and then disappeared from training for a month, nursing his grief.
Incapable of resenting his peers or envying their success, Srikanth has calmly watched Sai Praneeth leap ahead – grab a Worlds bronze medal, and qualify for the Olympics. A little too calmly too till he stirred at the start of this year and frantically, desperately wanted to play despite the isolation rules in Thailand.
But five first-round defeats, two quarters and one semifinal in the last stretch of qualification was never going to be enough.