India's ace male shuttler, Kidambi Srikanth, narrowly missed making the men's singles final of the just-concluded Hong Kong Open, squandering several game-points in the second game of his semi-final clash against home favourite Lee Cheuk Yiu.
Had the 26-year-old Ravulapalem lad converted even one of those seven game-points, he would have given himself a fair chance of taking the match to the decider and making his second final of what has been a disastrous 2019 season. He seemed firmly in the saddle at 20-16 in the second game, but faltered when it mattered the most; and allowed Lee, who had been promoted from the qualifying ranks, to go all the way and bag his home crown at the expense of the speedy Indonesian, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting.
The fact that Srikanth got past three earlier rounds, and only lost to the eventual champion, begs the conjecture that the Indian flag-bearer, after a lengthy barren patch, is very near the kind of form that netted him four Superseries (now World Tour) titles and one runner-up spot in the 2017 season.
But can it really be concluded that Srikanth is back to the level that had propelled him to the World no 1 spot for a week in April 2018? In the year of qualification for the 2020 Olympics, is he in the optimal shape, both physical and mental, that will be needed to net a medal at Tokyo, the stamping-grounds of two-time reigning world champion, Kento Momota of Japan?
File image Kidambi Srikanth. Reuters
The Japanese left-hander it was, whose late withdrawal from the Hong Kong Open allowed his scheduled first-round opponent, Srikanth, to progress further in the tournament.
Had Momota participated in the $400,000 prize money competition in Hong Kong, there is little likelihood that the Indian, in the form in which he was seen at the Hong Kong Coliseum, would have crossed that opening hurdle, for he went into the match with a losing 3-12 record against the Japanese, including nine consecutive defeats, without a win, since December 2015. The walkover that Momota conceded shored the Indian's record up to 4-12!
Srikanth only made it to the quarter-final round after he had been hauled over the coals by compatriot and reigning Indian national champion, Sourabh Verma, in the second round. That wafer-thin 21-19 third-game triumph gave Srikanth the ticket to pit his wits against Chen Long of China, against whom he possessed a 1-6 losing record, going into the match.
There was an element of the fortuitous in the Indian's victory over Chen in the quarter-final, though it must be said that his performance was heartening, and he finally seemed to be moving with alacrity and giving his natural aggressive game full rein. However, keen observers of the sport could see that the 2016 Olympic gold medalist and two-time former world champion was nowhere near his best, seemed hampered by a leg injury, and chose to retire after losing the first game at 13-21.
Finally, the loss against hometown hero Lee in the semi-final showed several of the shortcomings in Srikanth's game. He appeared nervous and ill-at-ease in the first game and was totally unable to control the drift in the stadium, smashing repeatedly into the sidelines, and falling prey time and time again to Lee's late wristy deception at the net. His defence was also suspect, and he found it hard to contain his rival's exuberant attack and quicksilver follow-ups to the net behind the smash.
This showing leads to an obvious comparison of his current game against his court offerings in 2017, when he won the Indonesian, Australian, Denmark and French Open crowns, and was runner-up to fellow-countryman, Sai Praneeth, at the Singapore Open.
The student of the game with a keen memory is forced to conclude that today's Srikanth remains a pale shadow of the all-conquering player he was in the 2017 season. He is definitely not as swift on his feet as he was two years ago, and the reason for this is improper recovery from the knee injury he had first suffered at the November 2017 French Open. The injury had got aggravated at the Indian Nationals at Nagpur, that followed immediately thereafter, and which all the top Indian players had been forced to play by the Badminton Association of India.
Apart from the slightly slower speed, Srikanth appears to have lost that leaping overhead sideline smash which netted him plenty of points in the first half of 2017. As players began anticipating this lethal stroke more regularly, the Guntur lad had shown the acumen to add the overhead crosscourt smash, to keep his opponents guessing. Both these smash strokes came about as a result of perfect midair positioning while pedalling backwards and sideways, following weak midcourt returns in the face of exemplary netplay by Srikanth.
Today, because of that slight loss of footspeed, Srikanth is unable to control the net as tightly as he did in 2017, with the result that his antagonists' clears go beyond midcourt and make it difficult for the Indian to catch them midstream for the overhead kill. Thus, the keen edge of Srikanth's aggressive game has been taken off, and his fangs drawn.
Another aspect of the matter is that the Indian's attacking game has been well studied by coaches and players from other countries, and strategies devised to counter his best shots. Several younger, exciting players like Indonesians Anthony Ginting and Jonatan Christie and Hong Kong's Lee have come up, and are revealing a turn of speed that the Indian is finding hard to counter.
Then there is the question of hunger and motivation. From Srikanth's body language on court, there is little to suggest that he wants to hit the topmost step of the victory rostrum. He has always been quiet, introverted, and relatively undemonstrative on the court during his matches; at times, he seems as if his mind is miles away from the ongoing proceedings.
"Do you think that a guy like Srikanth, who lived in a sports hostel in Andhra for more than nine years, and then landed a Rs 40 crore contract that has secured his future for him, would want to sweat blood to achieve greatness?" is the somewhat uncharitable view of a reputed Chennai-based badminton official.
"I think our shuttlers are happy being in the top ten (which will not be for too much longer) and are not willing to go the extra mile, which the erstwhile singles coach, Mulyo Handoyo (from Indonesia), was pushing them to do. That is why they have been left behind, while others have evolved and got better."
There is, however, a counter-view to this harsh assessment. As a noted coach from the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) puts it on condition of anonymity, Srikanth is a moody player, capable of playing his heart out when he is convinced that he should go for glory and equally capable of seeming flat and almost disinterested on court against even opponents who don't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as him.
"At the moment, unfortunately, he is not even thinking about the Olympics, but is merely going through the motions of training and playing," says this youthful coach, who is currently in Mumbai for the Infosys Open (formerly the Tata Open), and who spent quality time with Srikanth and Parupalli Kashyap recently, discussing their ambitions for the foreseeable future.
"He is still not fully fit and seems to be in a rut of sorts. But if he suddenly decides that he wants to do something with his career, he is entirely capable of pulling up his socks and going back to being the fit, fast and powerful player he was when he won all those Superseries titles in 2017."
Srikanth has seen his BWF (Badminton World Federation) ranking drop steadily from the pinnacle of the charts last year to a present level of World No 13. He has seen compatriot and sparring-partner, B Sai Praneeth, overtake him and power into the top ten. With a present World Tour ranking of 20, he has already ceded the opportunity of playing in the year-ending grand finals in Guangzhou.
Can Kidambi Srikanth " who will launch his campaign at the Korean Masters in Gwangju from Wednesday, as the tournament's sixth seed, and with an opening clash against Wong Wing Ki Vincent of Hong Kong " resurrect his flagging career? It appears that only the enigmatic Srikanth himself can answer this question!