Mark Caljouw might be a mildly interesting Dutchman in the footnotes of Kidambi Srikanth’s story of the World Championship silver. The Indian’s quarter-final opponent, who lasted 26 minutes, had earlier this year undergone a surgical procedure to reduce the rate of his heartbeats.
But Srikanth’s 2021 journey might best be told by mixing palettes of two other Dutchmen: artists Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondrian.
— BWF (@bwfmedia) December 22, 2021
Srikanth always had the dramatic thick brush strokes of a van Gogh canvas, right down to undertones of tragic losses. But imagine bringing the geometric simplicity of a Mondrian, breaking down an image into grid-squares bit by bit to recreate a canvas, while not veering away from basic colours. The year 2021 for Srikanth was seeing life and shuttle in inlays of red, blue and yellow.
His art on the badminton court was still abstract and held a universal aesthetic – from lifelong shuttle connoisseurs of Istora Senyan in Jakarta to first-timers at the Palace of Carolina Marin Arena, all have broken into spontaneous applause when he flicks at the net or lays it thick and bold on a smash. But Srikanth now deals in the modernist ideal of Winning. And winning only.
Try getting him to boast about his feathery touch-play at the net as against the accuracy-tyrants, the automatons, Kento Momota and Chen Long or the big bashing by the towering Viktor Axelsen, and he waves away the gush. “Look, no matter what strokes you have, no matter how stylish your game, you have to win those 42 points. These people (Momota, etc) have mastered the act of getting those 42 points. If you play well for that one hour and are consistent, then I’m good,” he explains.
No one quite knows what was whirling through Srikanth’s mind between the end of 2017, when his first knee inflammation acted up, and the start of 2021 when he started to stem his shocking poor run and lock the drooping shoulders. But winning the silver at the December World Championship gives him a faint definition of happiness.
“What else can there be to happiness when playing on the court, other than winning? There’s nothing else to it, except winning a match. Obviously, losing can never make you happy, that’s for sure,” he says. Circa 2017 – considered his top season with four circuit titles, Srikanth had told The Indian Express that his idea of success is winning five World Championships, like Lin Dan.
Plummeting confidence and missing the Olympics forced a recalibration of his goals thereafter (he’s still a tad cross about not making the Olympics despite what he reckoned was a good ranking), but there’s no doubt in his mind about how nothing beyond the court really matters. “At the end of the day, what’s really important is how you play in that one hour given to you – one hour on average for a match. Whoever plays the best then, wins,” he asserts.
Pros and confidence
Reams have been written diagnosing Srikanth’s confidence crisis, given the giddy results between 2014 and 2017 on the circuit, and the torrid ousters from tournaments, with a World rank No. 1 for a week thrown into the flux. What Srikanth did conclude though was that confidence lost on the court could only be found back on the court. He likes entering and exiting labyrinths on his own – pretty much no one on the outside will know what’s happening in his head, though friends offer a good distraction.
At a particularly tricky point of non-clarity during the pandemic-time Olympic qualification, Srikanth had posted a picture alongside a garden statue of those life-sized laughing Buddhas – this one nodding to sleep. Srikanth would pose next to it, mimicking the mock sleep and caption it: ‘Wake me after everything is done.’ Indian badminton was going through sniping and counter-arguments between its acrimonious (but civil) rival camps, when Srikanth posted that hoot drawing chuckles on social media.
“I was just looking at old pictures, and pulled this one out to post. I think it was clicked at the China Open in 2019 and I just posed next to the figure….” he laughs, unwilling to divulge what the cryptic message meant. Pulled in different directions, Srikanth’s favoured response has been freezing into a laughing Buddha sleeping statue.
Srikanth’s real surge of confidence for the Worlds finals came after converting the match point against Lakshya Sen in the semifinals. Though he can trace it back to playing Kento Momota in the first round of the French Open. It was a real wringer 21-18, 20-22, 19-21. But Srikanth crystallises his confidence down to that week. He had earlier lost 23-21, 21-9 in Denmark to the Japanese allergic to unforced errors. That one week’s progress really bolstered him in the mind. No placebos off-court, real performance on it.
“Confidence is more about believing in yourself, and usually I don’t have to specifically think of anything. Things fall into place. Against Momota, I played well that week, and it’s not a particular stroke that I’ll say is my confidence stroke. It’s about shot selection – when to play which stroke in the rally. It’s different against different players. That match I wasn’t thinking too much about the result. But I didn’t give easy points. I didn’t give up against Momota. That’s confidence,” Srikanth says. His repertoire is brimming so much, that picking his precise kill weapon is almost a ruthless self-discipline of sticking to the primary colour palette within the grid.
Srikanth’s oeuvre over the 2021 season has seen him lose the opening game, and in distinctly un-Srikanth 2019.0 fashion, turn it around in the next two. Asian Games champ Jonatan Christie took the first game 21-13 in the first of three Indonesia tournaments last month. Jojo is tough to down in Bali, where he’s riding his own confidence wave. “I had to really focus in the third, concentrate on the long rallies. I was happy with my overall fitness and how I was playing,” he says of the deciders he’s won.
Srikanth has a 6-0 record against fellow Indians on the international circuit this year – he’s beaten Sameer Verma, Ajay Jayaram, Sai Praneeth once, HS Prannoy twice and, of course, Sen in the highly-watchable Worlds semifinal. “It’s not about Indians, I want to win against everyone on the international circuit. There’s no personal rivalry,” he stresses, though winning match point against Sen ranks as his favourite moment of the year. “There were no other thoughts at the winning point. But yes, winning that will stay with me forever.”
As will the tap into the net at 20-all against Loh Kean Yew in the final, something to push him to improve if he’s ever short on motivation.
The Decider Insider
Against Chinese Li Shifeng, Srikanth saw it all coming together, albeit a tad late if his recollection is to go by. “I was trailing against him in the second game as well. I figured out a little late how to play,” he says. Against Sen, three errors from 17-16 up threatened to throw him back in that choking quagmire. His comebacks are more gratifying than his dominant displays because of the myriad times during the nightmare Olympic qualification when he crumbled like a brittle cookie. In Hong Kong two Decembers ago, from a staggering 20-15 match point up.
Srikanth’s Worlds run might’ve come against unseeded opponents, but he’s done well on the circuit even in losses against the top players. “I’m not exactly sure what’s changed. I’m just able to analyse well in the match and understand what an opponent’s trying to do and change accordingly. I feel I’m a step ahead of the opponent.”
Deciders will still go this way or that, he says. “Win some, lose some. But in deciders I’ve learnt how to play well from 15-all or 16-all,” he says.
A particular precondition for Srikanth to do well has been that he needs some decent mileage on the court before he hits the groove. He’s craved playing time all year long, putting his head down at other times, when he’s not soaring for his smashes. “It’s always been like that. I need to play a lot of matches before I hit the groove. I need more tournaments to get into rhythm and strike momentum slowly and start getting better,” he says.
His final opponent Loh Kean Yew, though, threw his inadequacies in sharp relief. “He’s aggressive and dominates on the net, just like me,” Srikanth says of the man the world calls a speed demon. “But if I was at my absolute best, I think I could’ve….” he lets that linger. Loh made Srikanth look second-best at the net – the Indian’s stomping ground, and the Singaporean might well push Srikanth to an upgrade.
“Yes, the net follow-up shot has worked well in the last few tournaments. But I’ll still try and bring more variety into smashes and net. I want to become a better player,” he promises, the right sort of takeaway from a silver medal, a trophy and two souvenirs from Huelva.
Srikanth got his visa for the World Championship at the very last moment. In a sign of what was to come, he played it calmly. “I didn’t really think about how I had prepared, or how I would play. I didn’t get court practice or a feel of the tournament shuttles. I played directly. I knew if I play my best, it will be sufficient,” he says. With that mind frame, he had confidence in a bottle. “I knew I’m experienced enough, I’ve played many tournaments, and if I stay in the match enough, I have the experience and will manage,” he says.
Frequently dubbed the over-thinker of Indian badminton, Srikanth chanted to himself the only reality he knew these last few years, which shook him while not making the Olympics: that he might not get another opportunity to play. “I told myself, think of the first round as if it’s my last match of the year and play my best.” It was just the right dosage of desperation, not too less, nor more.
“I told myself ‘it’s my last match’ before every match and played as if there’s nothing to lose,” he recalls. Until, he had actually reached the last match of the World Championships – and he was contesting the starry night of the final.