Swiss Open: Srikanth Kidambi finds an oasis of calm at the net, sole Indian to reach semifinals | Badminton News

‘Wake me up when it’s all over’ read the quipping Twitter caption, under a mock-sleep picture from some time in the autumn of 2020, with Srikanth Kidambi posing next to a Little Buddha-like garden sculpture. It was hashtagged #MondayMood, dating back to unplaceable COVID nightmare times, with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics postponed, and with Srikanth drawing a moment’s serenity during a severely uncertain phase.Another qualification cycle is drawing to a close and he’s lagging behind once again in the race. But Srikanth has found a certain calm, focussed sharpness in his game, as was evident on two consecutive days at the Swiss Open. Wordlessly and without a fuss, he packed off Lee Zii Jia in the pre-quarters. And on Friday, the 31-year-old was calm and controlled, beating Lee Chia Hao, 21-10, 21-14.

Wake me up when it’s all over… 💤🎶#MondayMood
— Kidambi Srikanth (@srikidambi) August 17, 2020
There was little of the smashing violence on court, just very meditative net-play. Srikanth’s perennial bane – the infamous errors when he overhits the smash and sprays it out of bounds, stayed far away in the shadows. A confident Srikanth, unhaunted the spectre of failure and unchased hovering expectations, was like a vintage melody on the radio on a spring morn, though Basel was as chilly as ever.
The world is in a hurry to move on from Kidambi Srikanth. Onto the next batch of fast, furious Men’s Singles players – Lakshya Sen and Priyanshu Rajawat. Yet, he remained the only one in contention at the Swiss Open, after Rajawat and Kiran George couldn’t string together a third straight good match. Srikanth has seen the ebbs and harsh blows of the international circuit. And there’s little guarantee he’ll hold his form in the semifinals against Taiwanese Lin Chun-Yi.

But there’s a serene steadiness to his bearing these days that will help India, if he plays the crucial third singles at Thomas Cup this summer. Despite a bunch of meltdowns in team events, blighting his brilliant record from when he coolly delivered the Thomas Cup for India two years back.
For a player stalked errors, the steadiness has come from shunning the expansive smashes that go long and wide, when he aims at the lines. The serenity – evident even against Zii Jia who digs power-packed, muscle-ripping chaos – comes from holding strong at the net.
Almost 80% of Srikanth’s points on Friday, came at the net. He never trailed against Lee Chia Hao in the first set. And it was only at 14-8 that he pulled off the iconic follow-up explosive kill at the net, after hefty mileage defending, in the preceding rally. But mostly, it was about taut net dribbles, parking himself at the centre of the meshing, and disciplined forearm maneuvering at short range. Point after point after point, Srikanth, simply engaged Lee Chia on the net tumbles, and his opponent had no answers.
Srikanth’s 21-15, 20-22, 21-8 win over Chou Tien Chen at the French Open will remain a happy story until the next time he grabs a loss from the jaws of victory. (X/Bai Media)
The net is Srikanth’s oasis of calm. He has a thousand variations for playing from there, and meditative control on the speed of the rally, denying opponents any say in the matter. It only comes off a few times, but when he can hit the net dominance zone, Srikanth can really cramp rivals for choices. Lee Chia just couldn’t push the shuttle back, such was Srikanth’s sculpting control on how the rally advanced.
Once he won the opener and had refilled on confidence, he switched gears and opened up the court with his flair of cross smashes. But till that point, he refused to look out the blinkers of focussed net exchanges. There was little scope of the flamboyant errors when he was barely aiming at the far back lines. Srikanth picked up the tempo when needed though. He took 6 straight points when he fell back 7-8 in the second and proceeded to wrap the match soon after.
Most of his peers have managed legendary feats in Switzerland – Sindhu’s world title, Sameer Verma beating Kento Momota, HS Prannoy with his title run, and Sai Praneeth winning his World Championship bronze. These courts suit Indians. They are not the slow, sluggish, drafty drawl of the humongous arenas – and the faster shuttles put Srikanth at ease.
Kashyap’s doting encouragement
But perhaps critical to Srikanth achieving zen mode in his game is courtside coach Parupalli Kashyap.
Kashyap never fails to remind you that Srikanth “is not an underachiever”, no matter how many people lump him with expectations and slide in the taunts of unfulfilled potential. Kashyap views that narrative as downright untrue. His rationale – did those before or after Srikanth achieve what he has?
A bulk of that understanding of how tough it is to crack the code in men’s singles, comes from Kashyap’s own struggles in pushing the bar. A CWG champion in 2014, he had wins against several big names, but knew how mighty difficult it was to make a semifinals of a Super Series. Kashyap had worked on his physicality, had an impressive repertoire of strokes, but in an era of Saina and Sindhu, and more importantly Lin Dan and Chong Wei and Taufik Hidayat, he knew winning MS titles was never a breeze. But then Srikanth went on a spree between 2014 and 2018, and showed Indians could nick titles too with his dazzling game. The Olympic medal didn’t come in 2016, like it hadn’t for Kashyap in 2012. But the senior pro knew precisely how tough success is to nail down, at that level.
A struggling Srikanth now has someone who understands the boring grind behind the strokeful dazzle. And Kashyap has deep reserves of pure belief in Srikanth’s class.
Kashyap didn’t exactly push for the Olympic qualification marker when they started. And not going crazy over it might well have calmed Srikanth’s nerves. Kashyap is also the sort who will remove the noose of expectations and fling it aside, with a joke or two to crack Srikanth up. The two connect on badminton strokes, besides movies and assorted other things, and Kashyap understands Srikanth minutely. There’s always Pullela Gopichand around for deep dives into strategy, but mostly it’s Kashyap geeing Srikanth up, and giving him the verbal refueling, assuring him of his capabilities. He can mix the fan-boying over Srikanth’s strokes, with cutting criticism of his makes, without the player slumping shoulders. There’s innate trust.
Kashyap had said a few days back, “It’s been good work since the time we started .. hard sessions. I have always believed if you do the hard physical work then you are mentally ready.”
But it was in his specific understanding of Srikanth’s situation. “With Srikanth, it’s a lot of factors ..He’s been at this level for a long time .. (you) need to find inspiration, need to think right .. can’t think short term,” Kashyap had said after Srikanth beat Chou Tien Chen at the French Open.
The senior pro will totally understand why after a crushing loss last French Open in October, Srikanth suddenly took off to immerse himself in the narrow streets of Musee de Montmartre at Paris – the museum premises where Renoir famously painted. He’ll also pull out a Telugu comic caper reference that’s silly or a hoot for both to guffaw. Kashyap’s closer than most to understanding this enigma.
More pertinently, Kashyap can also keep Srikanth focussed on the net, and stop him running helter-skelter. And he has managed to help Srikanth tame his wild errors that send Indian fans into depths of despair. “Can’t say there was one thing .. over three months it’s been many things and every small thing was important.”
Like every single Indian – Sindhu, Lakshya or Prannoy – Srikanth’s physical fitness can do with loads of improvement if he has to challenge the biggies. But in Kashyap, he has an unhesitating believer in his corner, who appreciates what Srikanth achieved, who applauds the next step he took for Indian badminton that Kashyap himself couldn’t in his time. Like Kashyap reminds, “He’s a brilliant guy to work with, already a legend of the sport.” It’s not said enough. But Kashyap will be the first to tell Srikanth not to think too far ahead – there’s a semifinal of the Swiss next to be won.

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