The chair umpire for Saturday’s Lakshya Sen vs Kidambi Srikanth semifinal ought to carry a fire extinguisher with him, climbing up his perch. Fires will be lit, flames will crackle at the net on Saturday as two of India’s pyrotechnicians of shuttle hover around the net to get the better of each other in a historic World Championship men’s singles showdown.
India assured itself of a place in the Worlds final when Srikanth slashed a strikethrough on Mark Caljouw’s ambition in 26 minutes, winning 21-8, 21-7. Later, Lakshya Sen spent 67 minutes building up Chinese Zhao Jun Peng’s hopes, only to charge him at the net while saving and making good match points, and in between sending back an outrageously unbalanced down-the-line backhand winner for three highlights package points of his debut Worlds. He won 21-15, 15-21, 22-20.
On Saturday, these similarly-wired attacking players will go up against each other and given their momentum and inexhaustible hunger to keep pushing forward, one will need to blink and mentally disintegrate, to predict a winner. Srikanth tends to be iffy and up-and-down against fellow Indians, while Lakshya is up against an opponent who is aware of his annoyance at being forced to retrieve the shuttle from the corners of the court four or five times in a row.
Expect a breaking point, after which the unblinking one runs away with the match. But till then, it promises to be compelling badminton.
Just thrilling! Lakshya Sen 🇮🇳 turns the match around and is through to an all-Indian semifinal against Kidambi Srikanth.
— BWF (@bwfmedia) December 17, 2021
It’s fortuitous for India that on the day PV Sindhu suffered her first medal-less exit from a big event, the two men – Lakshya and Srikanth were in the wings to keep India’s jamboree going. India has not returned without a medal from the Worlds since 2011 now.
But more than Srikanth, it is Lakshya, a 22-year-old from Almora, raised to be a champion at the Padukone academy, who offered reassurance to Indian badminton. The medal proves that with enough persistence, infusion of funds and expertise as well as a long rope, a Worlds stage achievement can be squeezed out and then unleashed in coming years.
Depleted the field might be, but the breakout player showed enough maturity to traverse through a decider keeping the Chinese on taut edge, like a catapult, from which were released Zhao’s errors. His commitment to stay in a rally for those extra shots before he found an opportunity to kill would separate him from the Chinese 25-year-old. Zhao was too fuzzy-brained to pin Lakshya to the corners, and relied on pace rather than working the Indian around with placement.
Lakshya’s emergence ensures that Indian badminton gets a fresh lease of life, alongside Satwik Sairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty, after the direst men’s singles results in the last two seasons. Someone to receive the baton when it is passed.
Srikanth’s flicker fuelled
Srikanth has spent the last few seasons being savagely written off. With little to show, the cutting assessments weren’t entirely wrong, but a medal such as this can resurrect his career. He’s worked hard and quietly, respecting his craft, and without lashing out at fate, though he’s one compulsive muller in the mind.
It perhaps needed a step down to the second rung of rivals, seeing off the non-Top Fives and getting the validation of a Worlds medal to rejuvenate a wandering career. As such, he’s been in fine touch throughout 2021, not winning titles, but looking content with his effort. Against the raw, uncut, work- in-progress Chinese on two back-to-back days, he freed his arms, uncorked the trademark strokes and was rampaging against Caljouw. Sometimes it takes six long years to reach the medal rounds of Worlds, and at other times, 26 minutes of a hop-skip-semifinal like against Caljouw.
India’s men’s singles has never been short on strokes and skill, handpicked – like Lakshya in Bangalore – to succeed in Hyderabad, their unchiselled talent steered towards success all this while. Yet, Srikanth, HS Prannoy and Sai Praneeth ran the risk of fading away, as India moved onto scouting among juniors. With Srikanth’s medal, the whole pack will be reinvigorated to make one more charge at the big stage.
Srikanth vs Lakshya
The big stage has witnessed Srikanth’s game in full glory. It’s best captured in the three-step plan of action: dribble, smash and tap at the net. Srikanth is so adept at it and his acceleration on the follow-up tap so quick that the Chinese were always going to struggle against the variations and the sheer audacity of the net charge.
Enter Lakshya, and the net game goes a level higher. Seriously blessed with a one hop-step, a world-class explosive thwack at the net where he gets into position to kill at the net in a micro-second, the youngster has raised the crescendo decibel at the net.
He will seriously be cramped when someone cuts out his prancing jumps around the court and makes him labour and skid to the corners. But for the moment, he can match Srikanth at the net. Similarly attacking games means it’ll be high-voltage badminton, with no inkling of whose nerves can snap. Given both are in their maiden medal rounds, the air is leaden with motivation. But it’ll be in the mind – and not relative skills – that this battle will be won.