October 2017– Indian shuttler Kidambi Srikanth wins the French Open Superseries Final, defeating Kenta Nishimoto from Japan in straight sets, barely breaking a sweat in the 34-minute match.
The dominating nature of this victory reflected the kind of year Srikanth had. This was his fourth Superseries win in 2017, a feat never before achieved by an Indian shuttler. Today, Kidambi Srikanth is Indian badminton’s poster boy, and at World Number 4, belongs to the sport’s creme de la creme.
En route to this pedestal, he was often called the ‘Giant Slayer’, a David staking his claim in global badminton by routinely defeating the sport’s Goliaths. Today, he’s a Giant himself – the slaying remains unchanged.
Rewind 16 years, and the same person was – well, not the same person at all. He was just another eight-year-old from Guntur, a town more famous for spicy chillies than fiery athletes. Playing badminton at the local centre, he was, at best, dimly aware of India’s then badminton superstar, Pullela Gopichand.
When I spoke with Srikanth recently, he said that all he knew about Gopichand at the time was that he was “big, very big”. Srikanth managed to catch a glimpse of the last few points of the final match of the All England Open Badminton Championships that Gopichand won in 2001 – this, after his friend told him that ‘some big badminton match was being broadcasted on TV’.
When Srikanth Clicked a Photo With Gopichand
A few days later, he was part of a crowd of badminton enthusiasts, friends, and curious onlookers who cheered Pullela Gopichand, who was paraded through the town in an open-top jeep. He even managed to click a photograph with the star. When Srikanth described the incident to me, it was apparent that this was no rising-star-with-risen-star picture – it was a fan boy moment for Srikanth with someone “big, very big”.
This adulation has imbibed in Srikanth a deep respect, and an unquestionable trust in Pullela Gopichand, and indeed, has allowed himself to be carefully chiseled and crafted by his master.
He perceived his move to the Pullela Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad as a significant achievement in itself, because it was led by “big, very big” Gopichand. Gopichand’s recommendation to focus on the singles format rather than doubles (which is how he started off his badminton), was unquestioningly implemented, despite the formats varying significantly in playing styles.
Even his on-court persona – characterised by controlled aggression, game domination and control – is shaped by Gopichand. As he himself describes his on-court persona, it is “90 percent from Gopi bhaiyya, 10 percent natural”. And this is evident when one interacts with him off-court – the on-court Kidambi is nothing like the off-court variety.
It’s almost like a switch – after every match, he offers the customary handshake to his opponents, to the referees, then packs his racquet into the kitbag, and with it the aggression and dominance, and morphs into the simple, humble off-court Srikanth.
“I Want to Beat Lin Dan”
There’s no mistaking, though, that Srikanth has always had a bold, razor-sharp vision of what he wants to achieve. When I interviewed him in 2012, as part of a selection process for scholarships at the GoSports Foundation, he was ranked a lowly 300+ in the world.
I asked him what his ambition was, and pat came the answer: “I want to beat Lin Dan”. “What is Lin Dan’s world ranking?” “Number 1” “What’s yours?” “300+” “And you believe that you can beat him?” “If I continue working the way I am, I will”. That simple. That clear.
Today, with him at World Number 4, and having beaten The Dan, the benefit of hindsight allows us to call that vision bold. Sitting there, in the interview, his responses could have easily been dismissed as wildly improbable to the point of being silly. But those are adjectives that don’t find place in Srikanth’s CV.
His personal ambition, and the trust he has in Gopichand, is backed up by a ruthless dedication at training – however difficult the task, “it’s got to be done” Gopichand would say, and it would get done.
‘Srikanth Has a Lot to Offer’
The transition from the relatively genteel training environs of Guntur to the famously demanding, envelope-pushing rigour of the Pullela Gopichand academy, coupled with the difficult switch in format from doubles to singles, could only be possible because of this Samurai-like focus and dedication.
Lin Dan, the former World Number 1, describes Srikanth as “the most complete player today”, and that is an apt, albeit brief, description. The many aspects of Srikanth come masterfully together on court – the gifted, the visionary, the Gopichand protege, the tactician, the controlled aggressor, the supremely dedicated.
When I asked him what he looks forward to, the clarity shone through again, “My short term goal is to win the Dubai Super Series; long term, I want to win an Olympic medal.”
Gopichand takes a broader view:
He’s young. I have a lot of respect for his talent and for the human being that he is. He understands beyond words. This is only the beginning, and he has a lot to offer in the future.Pullela Gopichand
What’s clear is that in Gopichand’s eyes, the little fanboy has grown to be ‘Big, very big’.
(Saisudha Sugavanam has been a keen observer of the rise of Indian Badminton for the last ten years – initially as a sports journalist for the BBC and later as the Programme Director of GoSports Foundation, a sports non-profit. She's currently a leadership coach specialising in coaching young adolescents.)
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