From a Humble Beginning, Srikanth’s Journey Has Been Remarkable
(This story was first published on 24th October and is now being republished after Srikanth’s victory at the French Open Super Series, his fourth title of the year)
Ravulapalem is a small, unknown town in Andhra Pradesh. It is a town of farmers, as most families rely on agriculture to eke a living. Among the farmers was a boy, who would go on to be a world-class shuttler, waiting to be discovered.
This boy’s family of four moved to the city of Guntur for better prospects. His father was a district-level cricketer when he was young, and always encouraged him to play the sport, if only to imbibe the values it brought with it.
However, his elder brother chose to play badminton instead, and Kidambi Srikanth followed suit. Their father allowed it, but with a condition that the boys not ignore their education, so that it could be their ‘back-up’ if they did not make it big in the sport.
For the next few years, the boys moved around a lot – to Visakhapatnam, where they went to their first Sports Academy, and then to Khammam, where their first coach was based.
However, the boy’s first slice of luck came when a new municipal stadium, with a badminton court, was built in 2000 in Guntur.
This is the story of India’s Kidambi Srikanth, who etched his name in the list of great Indian shuttlers by winning the Denmark Open Super Series on Sunday, 22 October. From a small town to a world-class shuttler, Srikanth is now the toast of Indian and as well as world badminton.
When Srikanth’s elder brother, Nandagopal, wanted to play badminton and showed some skill, he was allowed to pursue the sport and was sent to Visakhapatnam, where he was picked for the Sports Academy of Andhra Pradesh. Srikanth, feeling left out, became restless and joined him a year later.
When their first coach, Sudhakar Reddy, moved to Khammam, the boys moved there too. When the stadium was built in Guntur, the boys were home again.
Around 2004-2005, Nandagopal was selected by India’s national coach Pullela Gopichand to get trained under him. His academy was still in its early stages, and Gopichand had just retired from active playing. The academy did not become a reality until 2008-2009.
While Nandagopal was picked, Srikanth was not, as he was perceived to be not ‘hard-working’. Srikanth felt lonely and his game dropped further, so much so that six months later, his father went to Gopichand and requested that he coach Srikanth too.
Like Nandagopal, Srikanth too focused on doubles at the beginning of his career.
By 2008-2009, Srikanth was a full-time student at the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad. There began his journey. If Gopichand was the teacher on the court, Nandagopal became Srikanth’s teacher off it.
By 2011, Gopichand, who in Nandagopal saw a double player, saw Srikanth play singles. Nandagopal encouraged his younger brother to follow the advice. The rest, as they say, is history.
Srikanth is a man of few words, but isn’t shy to say that it was his brother who helped him through tough times. “He was always by my side through my difficult times,” Srikanth would say. Nandagopal was a brother and parent rolled into one.
With the sport came injuries, and even through it, his brother’s help became important. And Gopichand was the mentor for ‘all things badminton’.
Srikanth won silver at the 2011 Commonwealth Youth Games in men’s and mixed doubles, and the same year, won the all-India junior singles and doubles.
A year later, at the 2012 London Olympics, as Saina Nehwal became the first Indian badminton player to win bronze and Parupalli Kashyap became the first Indian male to reach the men’s singles quarterfinals, Srikanth beat world junior no 1 to win a title in Maldives.
In terms of a breakthrough, the year 2013 was a threshold. He won the Thai Open Grand Prix. What’s more is that he beat Kashyap as well to emerge as the national champion. He was just 20. This set him up for bigger things.
He made the Indian team, reached the final of the Indian Open, and quarters at Malaysian Open. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
In July 2014, Kidambi was found unconscious in the washroom of the Gopichand Academy. He was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed with brain fever, raising a question on whether he would be able play again. He was in the team for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, where he reached the quarters in singles and semis in mixed doubles. Just three months after the incident, he was up and about.
In November that year, he showed he was world-class player – he beat Lin Dan in China Open Super Series. Srikanth had arrived on the world stage.
The next two years were years of consolidation. He won the Swiss Open in 2015 and the Indian Open Super Series too. Both times, he beat Viktor Axelsen, the man who is now the world champion.
In 2016, he reached the quarters at Rio Olympics, where he lost to Lin Dan, but beat world no 5 Jorgensen. The same year, he won two gold medals at the South Asian Games and also the Syed Modi International.
However, 2017 has been the year he has shown his true potential. Though he was unable to make a significant mark in the World Championships at Glasgow where he lost to then world no 1 Son Wan Ho in the quarters, he hit the right button at many other Super Series events.
He reached the Singapore Super Series finals, where he lost to fellow Indian Sai Praneeth in the first-ever all-India final at Super Series. But Srikanth won the Indonesia Super Series and the Australian Open as he reached three Super Series final in a row.
Then came the Denmark Super Series and the French Open Super Series titles, which makes it four Super Series crowns in a single year. A feat not accomplished by any India player in history.
Kidambi’s list of matches virtually includes the who’s who of the world badminton – from Lin Dan to Lee Chong Wei to Son Wan Ho to Viktor Axelsen to veteran Lee Hyun-il. It is now a question of getting it right again at the World Championships and the Olympics.
After each win, Srikanth gets tons of messages on his phone and social media accounts, but it is congratulatory messages from cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar that makes him excited the most. The messages are becoming more frequent as are the hopes of Srikanth making it to the top of the world ranking.
“I didn’t get much time to talk to him, but those five to seven minutes that I spent with him, he told me that I will definitely become world no 1 someday, and it was a big thing coming from Tendulkar,” Srikanth had said recently.
From being 240th in 2012, he went up to rank 13 in May 2013. Now, he is ranked in the top 10, having gone as high as no 3. But there is still some distance to go and a few more goals to achieve – like a World title, an All-England crown, and, of course, an Olympic medal, preferably gold.
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