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Smash hit

Smash hit
At his best, Lin Dan is regarded as the greatest badminton player of all time and deemed invincible by all his contemporaries. But even at his worst, when injury makes him wobble, the five-time world champion is considered shuttling divinity’s Lazarus, the man who can rise from the dead any moment of the match.

Only two men have snatched matches from the twice Olympic champion since the 2012 London Games, Jan O Jorgensen and Sony Dwi Kuncoro. And China have not seen him lose at home in a decade. So when Lin Dan, recovering from an ankle injury, turned up at Fuzhou earlier this week, it could only mean one thing: Kidambi Srikanth of India stood no chance even if he suddenly found himself in the finals of the Premier Super Series at China.

Except, Srikanth upturned all logic and calculation by beating Super Dan 21-19, 21-17 at the spaceship-like futuristic stadium in eastern China. In achieving that, he even pushed to the back pages Saina Nehwal’s heart-warming return as champion after she beat Japanese Akane Yamaguchi 21-12, 22-20 for her eighth Super Series title.

Srikanth, a brooding 21-year-old from Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, who grew up watching his father manage many acres of farms that grew paddy, had climbed the rankings ladder of men’s singles painstakingly to world no.16 and done nothing more spectacular than winning India’s first Grand Prix title in men’s singles at Thailand in 2013.

In fact, he reluctantly started playing singles a few years ago, and needed to be told by coach Pullela Gopichand that making the national doubles semifinal in U-19 did not constitute ‘ambition’.

In the final, the laidback shuttler confidently stuck to no fixed plan whatsoever (‘It’s the only way to beat Lin Dan,’ coach Gopichand said), improvised on his unorthodox strokes, and scored a tactically brilliant and historic title triumph for himself and India. Considered India’s most talented player for some time now, talented, not always consistent, Srikanth had told his coach in his characteristically crisp fashion that he would only wish Gopichand on his birthday last Sunday, if he could beat Lin Dan. And the Hyderabad coach, though happy at how his ward had been playing, wasn’t expecting to be wished though.

Till the very last point, and given the number of times the world had seen Lin Dan defy defeat eventually, Gopichand waited nervously for the Chinese champ’s revival. ‘I jumped when Srikanth got the last one through. There’s disbelief because you never expect Lin Dan to lose, he always makes a comeback,’ the coach said.

‘But you know how Lin Dan can turn it around. He might be coming off an injury but you never write him off,’ the coach  said after securing his biggest win as mentor. Incidentally, only one Indian beat Lin Dan before Srikanth when he was a rookie. The coach himself. ‘I’d beaten him 15-4 or 15-3 in the decider when he was very young. But over the years, he’s turned into quite a monster. He’s better, faster and more versatile than anyone else,’ Gopichand said.

It was an intuitive call based on the same mental maturity he saw in the boy that made him convince Srikanth he would be better off at singles. ‘Good thing about him is he doesn’t think too much, he’ll do what he’s told. And if he’s told nothing, he won’t do anything which can be a problem,’ he said.

Moving to the Hyderabad academy was a choice Srikanth made, following elder brother Nandakumar, a far more energetic, outgoing and driven youngster. While Nandu had the spectacular jump smash and all the ambition, Srikanth dawdled about till the coach saw his malleable mind and wrists, and wide range of strokes and decided to put an end to doubles, the closest the reticent boy chose to being a wallflower while playing badminton.

‘He only speaks to Gopi about his game. The maximum I’ve heard him speak about sport is about Roger Federer in tennis. Otherwise, he trains, sleeps, watches movies alone, and never discusses the game with me. I was told by our parents that I had to look after my kid brother at the academy, and I don’t clutter his mind about the game either. When I spoke to him last night, I knew he didn’t need to be told what to do against Lin Dan,’ brother Nandakumar said.

Often touted as the next big thing of Indian badminton, reigning national champion Srikanth does not see the expectations from him as pressure. On the contrary, he says, it gives him the motivation to perform better. ‘I take them only as an encouragement. Everybody wants me to win more tournaments and it only means that I have so many well wishers and I am very happy to know that.My family was very happy with the win and yesterday was Gopi bhaiya’s birthday so my win is like his birthday gift,’ said Srikanth.

Srikanth also look set to qualify for the prestigious year-ending World Super Series Finals to be held in Dubai from 17-21 December. The $1 million event sees the top-8 players in each of the sport’s five categories compete for the titles. Points are calculated throughout the season, taking into count the 12 Super Series events happening all round the year. Olympic bronze medallist Saina is the only Indian to have qualified for the event in the past, having also played the summit clash in 2011, and is most likely confirmed for the 2014 edition. ‘I now have a real chance of playing the Super Series Finals. I am very happy and excited about it. But for now, I just want to play well,’ concluded Srikanth.
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