Kidambi Srikanth vs Lakshya Sen in semis, ensures first ever slot for India in world badminton men’s final

THE WRISTS of Indian badminton don’t twirl for touch-play at the net anymore. They come down like a hammer. Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen might well have the artistry when they prowl the net. But in the most visible transformation, it is explosive power and an aggressive charge that dominated the breakthrough of India’s men into the World Championship’s top echelons Friday.

Both Srikanth and Lakshya won with ferocity at the net, not the traditional fallback of flair and finesse. The two play each other for a place in the final on Saturday, assuring an Indian male contests a World Championship final for the first time ever.

Two men’s singles medals had come India’s way in the last 38 years – Prakash Padukone in 1983 and B Sai Praneeth in 2019. This year the draw opened up after World No.1 Japanese Kento Momota, two top Chinese and Indonesians withdrew, and then a couple of other Top Tenners were taken out fair and square playing indifferent badminton. But it still was going to need the Indians to swat away those in their way of medals.

Kidambi Srikanth had an easy victim in Mark Caljouw, defeating the Dutchman 21-8, 21-7 in 26 minutes. Lakshya Sen fought off a stubborn Chinese, Zhao Jun Peng, 21-15, 15-21, 22-20, including parrying off a match point displaying nerveless appetite for a scrap – one that he won.

Between the two, Srikanth, a former World No 1, and Lakshya, a debutant at the World’s, took out 3 of the 4 Chinese from the draw and pounced on the medals on offer.

Sen has perhaps played the raw, fierce, fearless badminton in his sophomore seniors season, and when confronted with the compulsive retriever, Kenta Nishimoto in Round 2, displayed mental strength and ambition that can rattle an opponent. His campaign has been filled with some eye-popping retrievals: he’ll dive left, spring up, chase the shuttle to far right forehand flanks the next instant, then lunge desperately to forecourt, and scramble diagonally back, all in the space of one marathon rally. He’s done all this panting for breath, some of his outrageous winners coming from severely imbalanced positions.

The big names will trouble him with clever ploys when they return. But one suspects not for too long if he keeps slamming cross returns at them and is constantly in their face, relentlessly – his fitness permitting. At any rate, a World Championship medal in his pocket, marks him out for his iron-clad heart, that produces breathless badminton.

Facing him amongst the established names in what will be a delicious semifinal, will be Kidambi Srikanth. Arguably India’s most stylish player, the 28-year-old Indian has been a story of missed qualifications. A plethora of early rounds lost at World championships, an entire Olympics 2020 missed, the regret of not finishing off with a knockout punch, when he had Lin Dan on the mat at Rio: all of that grief can be put to the side, as he guns for the big one here.

A former World No.1 he is, but one who had no Major medals to show. He benefitted from all the pull-outs at Huelva bigly, but he also carved out the games of two tricky Chinese in consecutive games, unfurling all the tricks of courtcraft he has internalised quietly in all these years.

Successful Indian World’s medallists have a bit of history of bossing the Chinese at the annual Major – from Padukone to Saina to Sindhu. Now, add Srikanth and Lakshya to the list, though Srikanth’s movement was breathtaking when taking apart Li Shifeng and Lu Guang Zu. Srikanth is the original intimidator at the net. His smashes are a mere set-up, the real kill is when his hand comes down like an axe splitting a log charging the net. The thwack on the shuttle is almost India’s biggest cultural change in sport.

India has usually followed the Chinese genteel tradition of not having coaches sit for matches when both players are from the same country, to avoid plotting against each other. Remains to be seen if Coach Park for Srikanth and father-coach DK Sen from Padukone Academy, will abide by the protocol in a high-stakes World Championship semifinal. But a Srikanth-Lakshya faceoff is a match for the ages, with two attacking and hugely talented and determined players have a go at each other.

At any rate, India’s men’s singles will at last have emerged from the shadows of Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu’s pathbreaking exploits. They have been playing serious catch-up with P Kashyap and Srikanth formerly struggling to break quarters jinx. When Sai Praneeth finally did in 2019, it didn’t appeal to sponsors. A slice of luck with draws now puts Srikanth and Lakshya in the spotlight, the focus firmly on the net where the two revel in chopping at the shuttle, leaving behind the quaint days of charming the bird.

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