Newsmaker: THE HIT MACHINE

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Social media was flooded with congratulatory messages after ace shuttler Kidambi Srikanth decimated reigning Olympic and All England Open champion Chen Long of China to win the Australia Open Super Series title last Sunday. The 24-year-old took just 45 minutes to script a memorable straight game victory, his first against Chen in six meetings, to bag his career’s fourth Super Series title. World No. 8 Srikanth, who before this tournament had reached the title round both at Singapore and Indonesia, winning the latter, also became only the fifth player in the history of the game to play three consecutive Super Series finals.

Sachin Tendulkar, who has often played mentor to sportsmen across disciplines, tweeted: “Heartiest congratulations to @srikidambi on winning 2nd successive superseries title. Proud of you champion!” Srikanth responded with a touching reply to the batting icon and his childhood idol, “Thank you sir. Your tweet is like a billion wishes for me. Will keep giving my best for the country.” The story goes that at their last meeting in 2015, the cricketing great had told Srikanth that he would become ‘world number one’ soon. The unassuming, hardworking lad from Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district seems to be right on track to turn Sachin’s prediction true, having burst into the top ten during the week on the strength of his recent performances. Those close to him say Srikant’s success highlights how you can chase your wildest dreams without taking your feet an inch off the ground.

Hailing from an agricultural family in Ravulapalem village in Guntur district, Srikanth and his elder brother Kidambi Nandagopal would not have pursued their dreams on the badminton court had their parents not taken the bold decision to send them to the Sports Academy of Andhra Pradesh (SAAP) at Visakhapattanam in 2001. Training under coach Sudhakar Reddy, a former Andhra Pradesh state champion, it was Nandagopal who was initially branded the future star for his dedication and temperament, while Srikanth had the reputation of being somewhat a slacker.

To quote Reddy from espn.in, “When Srikanth joined, he was the youngest among the batch of trainees and a very poor eater. He was lazy but a naturally talented player. To get him to do fitness sessions was a task and I ended up yelling at him almost every other day over this. I always felt Nandagopal would be the bigger star in future.”

While Srikanth was shy and happy to give the exhausting training sessions a miss, and content with being a good doubles player, Nandagopal had singles ambitions and was viewed as the more promising prospect. However, Nandagopal’s move to Hyderabad’s Pullela Gopichand Academy in 2008, where Srikanth joined him after six months, completely changed their lives.

Gopichand spotted a singles player in him, and brought him out of his comfort zone. As Nandagopal said in an interview: “Gopi sir wanted Srikanth to focus on singles and shifted me to doubles. Srikanth took some time to get used to the tough sessions, but once he did, the results began to show.”

Besides going through gruelling practice sessions and following a strict workout regime, Srikanth also made certain adjustments to take his game forward. Earlier a strict vegetarian, Srikanth started eating meat at the academy in order to match the physical standards required to compete at the highest level. His hard work paid off. In the 2011 Commonwealth Youth Games, Kidambi won the silver in mixed doubles and bronze in doubles. The same year, he won both in the singles and doubles category at the All India Junior International Badminton Championship held in Pune.

The Kidambi siblings started to make their presence felt in the senior arena in 2013. While Srikanth defeated then World No. 8 and local favourite Boonsak Ponsana to win the Thailand Open GP gold for his maiden international singles crown, Nandagopal, along with K. Maneesha, clinched the Maldives International Challenge mixed doubles title. Srikanth grew from strength to strength hereon, especially after he was introduced by Gopichand to Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo, trainer of former World No. 1 Taufik Hidayat.

In 2014, Srikanth pulled off the mother of all upsets when he blanked five-time World champion and Lin Dan of China in straight games to pocket the China Open Super Series Premier title. He thus became the first Indian to win a Super Series Premier men’s title. The massive upset drew words of praise from double Olympic gold medallist Dan, who said after the match: “Srikanth was very good. In recent times, he is undoubtedly the most complete player I have seen. He will go a long way if he continues to play this way.”

Srikanth continued the good run in 2015, winning the Swiss Open GP Gold, besides clinching the India Open Super Series title. He had a good build-up to last year’s Rio Olympics, reaching the semi-final at the Malaysia Masters, before annexing the Syed Modi International Grand Prix Gold title, defeating Chinese Huang Yuxiang in the title round. He was at his sublime best at the Olympics, breezing into the round of 16 where he thrashed Danish World No. 5 Jan Jørgensen, raising hopes of a medal hungry nation. But Srikanth’s luck ran out in the quarterfinal where he lost to defending champion Lin Dan in three games after putting up a valiant fight.

However, what makes Srikanth an exceptional player is that he doesn’t see losing as a negative. Call it maturity or experience, when he is nervous or down, he doesn’t show it. “Each tournament is a learning experience. You learn from your defeats perhaps more than from your wins,” mature words, coming from a 23-year-old after his maiden Olympic campaign.

Having a memorable run so far this season, Srikanth has time and again proved that he has the game to beat any player in the world. What makes Srikanth stand out is his great composure, accurate net play and aggression from the back of the court. And the man himself doesn’t hesitate to give full credit for his success to his former coach Gopichand.

After his triumph at Sydney last week, Srikanth revealed that the attacking style of play he has donned in the recent competitions, as well as his trademark jump smash, was Gopichand’s contribution. “The whole credit goes to Gopi sir. He’s really helped me develop that shot. He’s the one who has pushed me towards that. In fact, most of my shots and skills are because of his training. It’s all due to his focus. It’s about working on every aspect of your game and to try to attain perfection,” Srikanth had said.

Srikanth will next play for India at the World Championships, to be held in Glasgow next month. And going by form, fans have every right to expect another stellar show.

aritramukhopadhyay@mydigitalfc.com

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