BWF World C’ships final: Dazzling speedster Loh beats Srikanth at his own game

Loh Kean Yew has a high-decibel game, and the cacophony of his pristine speed, jagged and jarred at Kidambi Srikanth’s rhythm as the Indian went down 21-15, 22-20 to the whirlpooling Singaporean in the World Championships finals at Huelva.

This silver and the contest for gold were settled by speed, of the quality and quickness that has not been seen on badminton courts since Lee Chong Wei retired. Some even reckon that Malaysia-born, Singapore-reared Loh might be faster than Chong Wei, such is the impact of the unseeded 24-year-old’s conquest of the World title.

Kidambi Srikanth, it could be said, offered Loh the most resistance, after his first-round match against Viktor Axelsen. But even if scorelines like 9-3 and later 11-7 in the opener, and Srikanth’s defiance from 18-20 to 20-20 in the second offered slivers of steadying light into a dank room of vertiginous speed, the Singaporean remained too dizzying to handle for the Indian.

Loh’s speed training – just what his coaches do to prep him with shuttle runs, shadow practice, and the 30m sprints needed for badminton – can make it to the chatty nerdy universe of Reddit, and its obsession with athlete gizmos. But it was evident that Srikanth stood no chance once the younger man decided he would go for the attack, the pace akin to a doubles player’s, albeit on full court.

Hope-a-rope trick

Loh’s attack springs from the bedrock of his defense. Srikanth started confidently, his racquet ramrod straight for the backhand net taps. The beginning was beautiful also owing to the deception of the rendezvous – Srikanth would leap high in the air shaping for a smash, and send back a delightfully teasing drop falling short for a slightly rattled Loh. The mop of hair would get a few reorienting ruffles as the young sensation figured things out and 8 points vamoosed away.

Srikanth wouldn’t be faulted if he began to hope he was in the driver’s seat here.

It was here that Loh squished Srikanth’s pretty patterns, like a toddler handed a sketch pen and sat in front of a wall: mayhem with a knife-grip it portended. Loh blinked off the start, and stationed himself at the net, ready to topple Srikanth’s A game by out-netting him at the partition.

Singapore’s Loh Kean Yew poses with his gold medal after defeating India’s Kidambi Srikanth during their Mens badminton singles final match at the BWF World Championships in Huelva, Spain, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Daring in his dribbles, proficient in staying engaged at the net and taking the Marvel speedster Pietro Maximoff-like quick step to and from the forecourt, he would give Srikanth a polished mirror image of his own tap-smash tango. Pouncing at net kills, stubbing them by whacking them south, Loh always seemed to have the springs in his feet to step back and smash with equal ferocity and view the damage he wrecked from a cool distance.

Levelling at 11-11, Loh was deft in the right spin dribbles thereafter, having found his confidence too in a matter of minutes. He smashed from the forecourt, and forced Srikanth to toss them to backlines, the shuttles sailing long. By now, Loh had shredded Srikanth’s net plan. Yes, the Indian could’ve been sharper, but Loh was still faster in riposte.

Srikanth’s errors

Continuing from where he never left in previous matches, Kidambi Srikanth continued to log smashing errors on the flanks. These put pressure on him in the final, because the net errors with their small margins which need factoring in, were not going away either. It can safely be said that it was Loh’s axe-like whacking at the net, error-free too, that induced errors in Srikanth in his favourite turf. The gap widened to 14-19 and Srikanth couldn’t stem the outflow of points, going down 15-21.

Srikanth was expected to lump in his experience, skill and intelligence into a rolled bundle and hurl it at Loh in the second. He tried the flat exchanges that worked and the angled gorgeous smash that truly boggled Loh, and was a standalone moment to stop life’s cares, and stare at a court in Huelva. But these intermittent magical moments came sheathed in ordinary errors.

India’s Kidambi Srikanth returns a shot to Singapore’s Loh Kean Yew during their Mens badminton singles final match at the BWF World Championships in Huelva, Spain, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Srikanth’s fitness levels are nowhere near ideal, and that impacts his mental strength. But his unforced errors – to sidelines, the wide girth of their temerity, the frustrating imprecision of their straying has been so obvious the whole week, that you are tempted to make him spend his offseason shooting shuttles into a cardboard box a thousand times. A World Championship with those many errors would’ve been a travesty in fact.

Loh puts pressure with his own accuracy sure. But Srikanth’s profligacy is entirely his own making. You get to call Momota, Chen Long, Axelsen boring for their metronome, monotonous control over the shuttle, but watching Srikanth you crave that the Indian had their dull discipline. Or fitness.

All that looked even starker, as Loh, a tall man, dived around and bounced about retrieving to corners while keeping steady hands at the net. Srikanth floundered though as he fell back at 9-9. Loh had the better of long rallies, and even if Srikanth regrouped from 9-12 to 16-14 in the second, wresting control of the net (a sublime acute backhand crosscourt at 16-14), his smashes kept straying wide, costing him the small leads that could’ve helped him close out.

Yet it was at 18-19 that Loh completely buried the Indian. One suspects Srikanth didn’t have a choice but to go for lines. Squatting to a low center of gravity, Loh defended 5 smashes that rained down left and right, and sent them back without giving them elevation that could end in a kill. He made it 18-20 weathering the storm.

Srikanth accelerated gamely, got one smash finally within the lines for 20-all. But a net error on the stick backhand crumpled into the net next. Then Loh lobbed one to the back corner to break the proverbial hunching camel’s back.

Loh beat Srikanth at his own expert game. The only silver hung off his neck, there were no linings when the cloud called Loh Keah Yew burst.

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