Injury has been often the differentiator between the best in the world and the best of the rest. For Kidambi Srikanth, however, injuries were the lesser significant element of the heady mix that brought his downfall. Despite popular opinion, it has always been his inconsistency, in epic proportions.
Tenacious, dogged, and most importantly, power play. India had announced their new generation of shuttlers riding on attributes that most badminton greats hardly aspired to acquire. The subtle sport, which requires skill, anticipation, and stamina, over everything else to succeed, saw two towering athletes with brute strength dominating the circuit in 2016 – Srikanth and PV Sindhu.
However, while both have had their fair share of failures, Srikanth’s absolute lack of sting since the BWF French Open 2017 has been disturbingly sceptical, to put it mildly. the only shuttler, who recorded an unprecedented feat of four BWF Superseries triumphs in a year, never heard in India’s men’s badminton history, couldn’t just be bogged down by an unfortunate injury for the rest of his career. Right?
Srikanth never thought this way though, for he was very quick to blame the nationals for his fate. “I played those two tournaments (the Denmark and French Open Superseries) in two weeks. I played all the ten matches and right after that, I came back and had to play the Nationals [82nd Senior National Championships]. If I would have skipped that, I wouldn't have suffered the injury. It would have given me more time to rest my body, train and play other tournaments," Srikanth had stated in an interview to TOI in December 2017.
However, while it demanded sympathy from one and all for the blue-eyed boy of Indian men’s badminton back then, it cannot anymore. “Injuries are a part of the game”, is practically the biggest cliché in the sporting world and if Srikanth was, as many believed, that good, then he should have been up and reaching for his best in the two years following that.
The greatest footballer on the planet, Lionel Messi, has suffered innumerable injuries throughout his glittering career. He tore his muscle bundle first in the 2013/14 season, a time when he was at his absolute peak and had to be out for 56 days. Two years later, he had a medial collateral ligament knee Injury, which kept him out for 51 days this time. The left-footer changed his approach with age and still had to deal with another torn muscle bundle in 2016/17.
But, while the dents in his career might have slowed him down in terms of numbers at times, the Argentine has hardly lost his golden touch whenever he has been back on the field. Hence, to assume that Srikanth’s injury was the only Kryptonite that hindered his glittering career and stopped him from achieving greatness would be foolery.
A one-season wonder would be a more suitable term, as it has seemed over the past two years. Quite interestingly, while Srikanth became only the fourth player in the world to win four men's singles Superseries titles in the 2017 calendar year, he also failed to make it to semis of the other three biggest tournaments of that year. He was ousted in the quarters of the World Championships, the round-robin stage of the Superseries Finals, and a further exacerbating pattern would be the first-round exit in the All England Open.
His immediate dip in form didn’t disturb the ranking though as he became the world No.1 in April 2018, only the second Indian to achieve that after Prakash Padukone. And it was here that the popular perception was created. A young shuttler, achieving some firsts in Indian men’s badminton history, and having the proper physique to dominate the circuit, was the perfect face to promote and popularize the sport in India. However, while the Yonex-sponsored shuttler had a chronic injury-filled 2018 where his only success came in in the Gold Coast Games, which lacked the competitive edge, he has been underwhelming in 2019 as well.
Barring the India Open, where Srikanth reached the final only to lose to Viktor Axelsen, he hasn’t reached the semis of the nine other tournaments that he has competed in 2019. A prime reason has been his dismal record against the top five, who has risen magnificently since Srikanth’s quadruple in 2017.
The most dismal of them has been against World No. 1 Kento Momota. The Japanese had last lost to Srikanth back in March 2015, beating the Indian consistently nine times since then. World No. 2 Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei last lost to Srikanth back in November 2014, while World No. 5 Chen Long has lost to Srikanth just once in their entire head to head stats.
Srikanth’s only positives would be against young Shi Yuqi, who is the current world No. 3 and has lost three out of four times to Srikanth and Indonesia’s Jonathan Christie, who has a 4-4 head to head with the Indian World No. 10. To further paint a dismal picture of his situation, Srikanth has also been eliminated by the likes of World No. 7 Son Wan Ho, 33rd ranked Shesar Hiren Rhustavito, 11th ranked NG Ka Long Angus, 30th ranked HS Prannoy, and 29th ranked Khosit Phetpradab. And this came in a year where the shuttler claimed to be injury-free.
Srikanth could remain No.1 for just one week since April 12, 2018, seeing a sharp fall in grace thereafter, and has seemingly been feeding off those accolades. And for India, who are more anticipated than ever before an Olympics event, getting represented by Srikanth despite everything would hardly do justice.
But, such has been the competition in the domestic men’s badminton circuit that Srikanth’s blunt runs in tournament after tournament has still kept him the best out there for India, for the likes of Sameer Verma and B Sai Praneeth have further reeled in mediocrity, so much so, going past the round of 16 has often been a challenge for the 14th and 19th ranked players. Hence, despite Swastiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty winning the Thailand Open to make a statement, PV Sindhu with her “choker” tag would remain India’s biggest and sole hope in Tokyo next year.
Having drawn half parallels to India cricket great MS Dhoni for his slow starts to a match, the 25-year-old enjoys a similar blessing like the Jharkhand born legend – having no competition whatsoever for his position in the squad. Hence, the mercy entirely falls upon the players, who would need to take the onus and to do better for the nation.
While the World Championships would be a litmus test for many in the Indian contingent, for Srikanth it would be a stage where he will try to refute claims of the Guntur-born being a one-season wonder. And it would be quite realistically possible, for the highest-seeded opponent that he could be playing in his draw before the quarters would be 12th ranked Kantaphon Wangcharoen of Thailand.
However, a similar opportunity was gifted to him in the Thailand Open as well, where most top seeds had withdrawn owing to preparations for the Worlds, and Srikanth ended up losing to Phetpradab in the round of 16. After a certain point in an athlete’s career, it is hardly about the talent and more about how much one wants to win. And the lack of competition, in a certain way, has seemingly taken away the will from Srikanth.