And the rest was history? Not quite. Even that, goes the story, took some doing. Pullela Gopichand wasn’t too sure of the kid’s potential, happy as the coach was with older sibling Nandagopal’s early progress at his academy. An exasperated father had to convince hard to make Gopichand relent and take his younger son too under his wing.
Then, as they say, the rest was history. Says who? Like most success stories, Srikanth’s tale has its share of grit and hard work. Some critical decisions and self-belief also played a role in charting a fine, successful course. And of course, that life-altering decision to relinquish the camaraderie-inducing, load-sharing ethos of doubles for the solitary pursuit that is singles badminton.
On Sunday, win or lose, despair or triumph, Kidambi Nammalwar Srikanth‘s ever-evolving arc will have come full circle.
Born into an agricultural family, Srikanth followed in the footsteps of brother Nandagopal and picked up badminton at a very young age. The brothers first trained with coach Sudhakar Reddy in Hyderabad before the parents thought it was time to upgrade. Nandgopal got admission into the Gopichand Academy, but the coach found the younger son too easy-going.
“His father asked me to consider his younger son as he was quite mischievous, That’s how Srikanth got into the academy,” Gopichand tells TOI, adding that he was a happy-go-lucky guy, the key ingredient of hunger and focus stowed away and forgotten in some drawer at home.
“He used to get satisfied with the doubles results he was getting. Then I gave him some targets and streamlined him. He soon became a hardworking player,” remembers Gopi.
Today, not many would remember that Srikanth started off as a doubles player and even won silver in mixed doubles and a bronze in men’s doubles at the 2011 Commonwealth Youth Games. It was here, when most players would be charting their future course in their chosen discipline, coach Gopichand would identify a hidden singles player in Srikanth.
The switch didn’t take long. “All credit to Gopi and his mother. They identified the potential in Srikanth,” says a grateful Nandagopal.
Moment to savour! ❤️@srikidambi became 1st 🇮🇳 Male shuttler to win 🥈at #WorldChampionships while @lakshya_sen bec… https://t.co/LfKeDxMUc4
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Srikanth, on his part, did not disappoint Gopichand. A few months after becoming a full-fledged singles player, Srikanth won the title at Thailand Open Grand Prix Gold tournament. A huge psychological boost came in 2014, when he upset five-time world and two-time Olympic champion, Lin Dan, downing the Chinese superstar in the final of China Open Super Series Premier event.
Buoyed by the progress, a confident Gopichand worked hard on PV Sindhu and Srikanth before the 2016 Olympics. The coaching staff was quite optimistic that Srikanth would land a medal, but Rio proved an important part of the learning curve when Lin Dan avenged the China Open reverse of two years prior, in the quarterfinals.
Srikanth took that setback in his stride and made 2017 a huge year in his career, becoming the first Indian to win four Super Series titles in a calendar year. It was a watershed — the titles propelled him to the world No. 1 status in April 2018.
But that high was followed by a low with a spate of injuries in 2019. The right knee injury, especially, slowed down Srikanth. And when he recovered, Covid-19 forced him and the rest out of the circuit. With no tournaments to improve his ranking, Srikanth failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
Srikanth, however, proved that he’s made of sterner stuff – Gopichand had been impressed by his nerves of steel early on, and that was coming into play when it was most needed. Srikanth went back to the basics, trained hard and most importantly, worked on his fitness to stay healthy. The results didn’t take long to show. The first Indian man to play in a World championship final still has a long way to go, though. He’s already turned his attention to the Paris Olympics in 2024. Knowing the new-found determination of a once slacker and mischief-maker, it can only spell good news for Indian badminton.