It doesn’t have to be a day that defines one’s life with cups, medals or confetti. Just a 38-minute respite of perfection from the presiding woes of the day and life will do. A small window free of pains and aches of a patched-up body that one dare not betray, lest the opponent pounces on the weakness, a tiny break from the spate of defeats that get pinned to one’s season, and haunt confidence.
It needn’t be a title-winning run, the likes of Kidambi Srikanth strung together five years ago. Just the most glorious 38 minutes at the Japan Open Super 750, where Malaysia’s feared top player Lee Zii Jia is defeated 22-20, 23-21, and fooled after believing in both games that he had the Round 1 match in his control.
It was that kind of a day for the beleaguered Srikanth. A little like the literally hidden gem of a venue in Japan, known mostly to host the elegance of gymnastics and figure skating championships. The Maruzen Intec Arena in Osaka prefecture is a rare semi-underground venue, with a dazzlingly artistic high roof with rays-of-sun-like diamond motif on the ceiling.
It’s in that cavernous arena, on top of which grow lines of cherry blossoms and other trees, that Srikanth lit up a pretty little contest, and reconnected with that elusive ‘zone’ that eludes him more often than not.
It’s been a rough time for Srikanth since the Thomas Cup triumph where he was the stirring potion behind India’s magical title run. Two defeats at the Commonwealth Games to young Malaysian upstart Ng Tze Yong while he didn’t feel at his fittest, had dented his performance, though not his poise.
He would accept the bronze gracefully behind Lakshya Sen in the individual event, cop the venting criticism for the team silver, though it wasn’t all on him in a 5-match 3-doubles format. Then the Chinese Zhao Jun Peng would run through him in a stacked bracket of a draw at the World Championships for an early exit.
Srikanth arrived in Osaka to play in those dazzling dungeons of the Maruzen Intec Arena, pretty down and out of form. But it was the quiet, easy-paced acclimatisation that seemed to inject a freshness of purpose in him.
In a recent chat for a sponsor segment, Srikanth had spoken about the struggles of shuttlers in getting used to conditions week in, week out. Typically, they arrive just two days ahead of any event, and try to scrunch in all the preparations in getting used to court drift, shuttle whims in the one practice session they were afforded in the main hall. He would tell the chat host about not that session, but the psyching up (or down) that happened the day before.
“I try and avoid sleeping in the afternoons the day before because there’s always jet lag issues. I sleep as late as possible the night before. By 10.30 in the night. Till 8.30-9 in the morning. That (block of) sleep is enough for the body to recover and head out to the one practice session,” he explained.
Finding his groove
At Osaka, one suspects he found a little more time to ease his way into the tournament, having played in Tokyo the week before. But waiting in Round 1 was the Malaysian top gun, Lee Zii Jia.
It would be misleading to say Srikanth turned back the clock to 2013, when he first beat Lin Dan. Or 2015, when he became World No 1. Or 2017, when he won four Tour titles. It wasn’t that same all-round game. On Wednesday, he dialled back to when he was 19. A quiet, reticent junior doubles player, who came alive when playing at the net alongside D Hema Nagendra Babu. It was that net game, his second skin, his first instinct, his confidence-measurement like colourful sails in a soothing wind, that Srikanth brought in to beat World No 4 Zii Jia.
It’s that aspect of the doubles half-game – when one lords over the net, an exploding offence with pushes and taps, and outwits opponents with the forehand dribble – that Srikanth was dipping into and summoning from his memory of more than a decade ago. He had the ascendancy right from the start, and took a handy 15-11 lead in the opener to be well on his way.
This wasn’t the imperious Srikanth with a blazing attack – smashes, cross-courts from the back, et al. He had that immense control at the net, and that was that. So, he would bring in all the deceptive tricks to the mesh-front.
He continued facing issues on the backcourt – including four judgment errors on the back lines, which brought the Malaysian to 20-all. But his net variations would pull him out of trouble and parry back Zii Jia’s resurgent hopes.
Kidambi Srikanth knocks OUT World no. 4 Lee Zii Jia 22-20, 23-21 in 1st round of Japan Open.
Its 1st ever win for Srikanth against the Malaysian shuttler in their 3 matches that they have played so far. #JapanOpen2022 pic.twitter.com/ktEeVTJZP1
— India_AllSports (@India_AllSports) August 31, 2022
He trailed for 13 of the 14 points in the second game, but had the confidence in his net-zone. Zii Jia is a lean, mean attacking beast, who defends stoutly. But with just his forecourt bag of tricks, Srikanth could assert supreme control over his opponent’s pace and push him around, hassling his mind.
At 22-21 on match point – for Srikanth flubbed a neat 20-18 opportunity – the 29-year-old would play a forehand dribble with such accuracy and confidence that his menacing speed in the net kills with his follow-ups got a smoothened polished nuance. Zii Jia is no dummy at the net game himself, but Srikanth was way superior on the day.
“It’s his doubles game magic from junior days,” courtside coach Siadatullah would chuckle, recalling that unchanged, unwavering, unsullied and unbroken part of Srikanth’s game that no injury or loss of form or opponent at their mightiest can cancel out. “He has such a good tap at the net from his junior days. And is great at receiving. He’s just very confident when he plays at the net like that, it is great to watch,” he added.