Srikanth, Sen & Satwik-Chirag take down fancied opponents, making it memorable Tuesday for Indian badminton

They don’t quite _ yet _ have the ‘stans’ (overzealous, obsessive fans), who will casually ‘kms’ (kill myself – an informal, facetious internet expression of melodramatic disappointment) when a smash sent down by them drifts wide, or an error gets dumped into the net.

The large swathes of badminton diehards from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, now Singapore, who throng Snapchat, Insta, Twitter, Weibo, Tiktok and Facebook following every movement of the East Asian shuttlers, with K-Pop religiosity, are far removed from the small pockets of niche support for India’s men’s players. So, a Lakshya Sen edging out Japanese Kenta Nishimoto in Round 2 of the World Championships, isn’t going to send seismic waves through Indian web-verse, unless it’s closer to the weekend title.

Those youth cults and internet wars are reserved for cricket’s polarising personalities in India. So it’s no surprise that Kidambi Srikanth, Lakshya Sen, HS Prannoy Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty simply tiptoe under the radar unless a big title fetches up. Quietly going about their struggles to break through on court. What the Indian band of boys have also come to accept is that PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal will always cast massively long shadows, owing to their considerable achievements.

For once though, a tournament Tuesday of the World Championships, was headlined by Indian men, and top-class face-offs amounting to very watchable TV badminton. Four wins against tough opponents in the space of 24 hours, might not be harbingers of an erupting silent revolution. But with a large number of withdrawals, Indian men are lining up for cracking contests and jockeying for the spotlight that ought to realistically never leave PV Sindhu, defending her 2019 title.

Yet, there they were at the arena named as the Palace of Carolina Marin in Huelva, Spain, overshadowed by an impending faceoff between Sindhu and Tai Tzu Ying (after Pornpawee Chochuwong). Trying to break free from difficult early-round encounters, pouncing on chances to not be relegated to small-print newspaper scores. None save the doubles pairing are in Top 10, and it is routine for opponents, second-round onwards to start throttling their resolve, if not hopes.

Top-20 in men’s badminton isn’t what it’s cracked up to be – just a stride away from Top 10. For years now, the senior Indians are flapping their wings to take flight at the World’s – even Srikanth who was a No 1 in 2015. Lakshya Sen at his debut meet, is undergoing transitioning that hasn’t been as rapid as it does for prodigies of the sport.

Against Nishimoto, ranked two places above him, Sen was staring at pitfalls that’ve pockmarked his seniors career: tiring visibly in the decider, and up against a retrieving machine. Yet, Sen would show immense grit to fashion finishes that didn’t come apart in the crunch.

Nishimoto has no big weapon of note, but he knew prolonging the rallies would melt Sen’s feet. Showing remarkable skill to push the pace even while his feet were leaden, Sen retrieved shuttles he could, before cranking up the hitting speed while charging the net to crowd the 27-year-old Japanese. It was a marathon 88 minute match that Lakshya edged his way 22-20, 15-21, 21-18, by stepping up gears precisely when needed.

It’s been the missing link from his game – awareness of when to attack. And progressively wilting into the decider, which he wound up in after a couple of mistakes in closing out the second. But not here, not again, he seemed to say. “Two small errors cost me the second game. But I was ready to go all out in the third as well. That worked out well in the end. I was on the good side from the beginning so the lead gave me an advantage in the end,” he would tell BWF later.

Instinctively an attacking player, the lagging shuttles were tough to kick down easily. “I needed to be patient, build up a rally, then go for a smash,” he would say wisely. A host of close misses had finally yielded a result tipping his way, with all the lessons learnt.

His mind was prepped for the next one against Kevin Cordon – the Guatemalan Olympics semifinalist. A huge part of growing up in badminton is not giving too much respect to the opponent from across the court. “Just another match for me, I know he had a good run in the Olympics but looking forward to next match. Recovering on off day, and going all out,” he said.

Srikanth fights back Chinese upstart

Kidambi Srikanth, meanwhile, was fending off a Chinese upstart. Li Shifeng, a Youth Olympics champion, with good wins at the Thomas Cup recently, is a serious talent for the future. But it was upto Srikanth to not rush in that inevitable future.

In a top-quality game, Shifeng matched Srikanth in smashing quality, and had a dependable defense to boot. There’s an economy of movement that Shifeng aspires for, like his hero Lin Dan. He’s not quite there, but the 21-year-old tall player can endure the attacks that start from Srikanth’s mid-court smashes and end with the Indian following up with an unquestionable winner slammed down from the charged net.

Perhaps his biggest weakness, as commentators pointed out was in his one-dimensional defense. His parries are all straight, down the line, making him predictable, and it was here that Srikanth fully outclassed the Chinese.

Most Indian men’s singles players have carefully nurtured flair in their stroke making, and this involves a cross-defense which forces opponents right-to-left, when not yo-yoing front and diagonally back. Shifeng would earn the early advantage of 21-15 with his blitzing start, even as Srikanth who had arrived only a day before his first round, got a hang of things.

Once he had a good read on the Chinese, he would go about dismantling his confidence, with his cross-attack, spoiling his rhythm. Typically of Srikanth, there were punctuating errors – a smash over-hit or too much balled adrenaline aggression limping into the net. Those keep life interesting for those who frustratingly follow his games. But on Tuesday, he pulled himself together when it mattered.

Excellent body defense, variety in strokes and fistful of deception would see him rain down winners on Shifeng to never allow the Chinese to breathe easy. A rude blister on his sole would further make him uncertain. But it was what he called Srikanth’s “complete game” that finally buried his hopes.

“My opponent played really well. He gave a complete performance. I think one place where I was lacking was in mental (strength). When I faced difficult situation I didn’t know how to face it. The plan worked in the first game, but later I was not very confident when playing at the net,” Shifeng told BWF.

Srikanth looms larger than his frame at the net and can unleash savage kills masked by perfectly kind eyes. It’s not a mystery – his net attack. Just that most don’t find a way around it anyway. On his part, he ensured he didn’t botch the kills. “After 13-14, it was important to be consistent. I got the lead after trailing 13-11. Those 3-4 points were very crucial,” he said later.

Not much has gone right for him since the highs of 2015-7. But Srikanth has found his hunger, the reason to play his sport and earn the stage to unfurl his beautiful badminton. It showed in how he adapts. “Came one day before tournament started.. Even before I knew what was happening, I was playing first match. Few things you can’t control so happy to be able to win. I want to do well. Any condition,” he said.

He’s up against another Chinese – Lu Guang Zu, a combative player who breaks down gritty games like Sameer Verma’s, but can struggle against the sort of pickled games that Indonesian Anthony Hunting can churn out. Srikanth’s flair will be tested by an iron-clad resolve to not give up. But Srikanth is for once brimming with confidence that started taking shape after he failed to qualify for the Olympics. Lucky for him, the World’s were round the corner.

Doubles looking to trouble

It’s been a tough ride for Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty too. The duo who have broken through but not won big, retain their excitement about merely playing the sport.

Yet a week ago, Satwik was knackered from incessant tournaments. “It felt good to take a break for 4 days before World’s in india. Refreshed myself. Had indian food,” he would say later.

The big Hulk of Indian badminton needs to feel comfortable on court, and avered he was feeling good, which directly impacts the pair’s performance. Playing Lee-Yang, the duo would be stalked throughout the first set – their heels being snapped at, till they could quell the Taiwanese 27-25.

In the second, they eschewed the drama, kept their nerve, and pulled the plug nearing the end to claim it 21-17.

Later, Satwik would talk about how he was literally bored of playing under pressure. “No pressure at all from here on, because we have been playing so many tournaments and we keep taking pressure. Then we get an injury and frustrating kind of things happen. Now it’s step by step,” he said of his mental course correction. Satwik reckons the courts are great to defend a little and attack a lot, though the cold is creeping into Europe.

Indian men revelling in the spotlight and hungry to get onto the court against higher ranked opponents is the sort of boldness badminton has been looking for, for a few dry seasons. Winter is here; bring on the winter.

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