Kidambi Srikanth finds a new level in Sydney

Kidambi Srikanth lifts Australian Open trophy

On the eve of Kidambi Srikanth's final at the Australia Open, his academy coach Pullela Gopichand had been cautious of the 24-year-old's prospects.

Srikanth's opponent Chen Long might be in the midst of a dry spell and suffering a stomach bug, yet as Gopichand had said - an Olympic Champion was an Olympic champion. The Chinese across the net on Sunday in Srikanth's third straight Superseries final, was as Gopichand put it, "his toughest test so far."

As it turned out, the test was aced. Every problem Chen posed with his spiderlike defence was deciphered by a relentless Srikanth. The result was a remarkable straight games beatdown - perhaps the most comprehensive of victories an Indian has had over a top-class opponent in recent memory.

Self belief

Chen Long is not unbeatable. Only last week, HS Prannoy had upset him in the quarter-finals of the Indonesia Open. Prannoy says he never discussed the win with Srikanth, who was his room-mate in Jakarta. However, he adds both players knew what had to be done.

"Against a player like Chen Long, it isn't just about your technique or your tactics. First you need to believe that you can do it. If you don't have that belief, then it is impossible to do it," Prannoy says.

That self belief, which had seemingly deserted Srikanth for nearly a year after a heartbreaking loss in the quarter-final of the Olympics, had miraculously been found on the victory podium at the Indonesia Open. At the Australian Open, it was as strong as it has ever been for Srikanth.

"There is a certain amount of confidence that you get. It isn't the only thing but it is significant," Gopichand says. This isn't to say Srikanth's was a nerveless performance. His first shot was a service error after all. Yet, as the match wore on it was clear that false start was a mere blip on what was a near flawless display.

The jump smash

Srikanth and Mulyo Handoyo, the coach in his corner, knew what to expect from the 6'3" giant across the net. Chen Long is perhaps the strongest defensive player on the international circuit. What sets him apart from other players though, is his ability to kill a shuttle when he has to. It is as close to a complete style in badminton as any.

Srikanth's gameplay on the other hand is built around offence. More particularly, a jump smash from the back of the court. It is a thing of beauty, feared by his opponents and admired by his team-mates. Srikanth's skill is in the flash of movement that sets it the flourish of the racquet.

"He gets under the shuttle really quickly. I am an aggressive player but even I am not that quick," says Prannoy. The movement is not unique to Srikanth but no one has made it a signature stroke in the way he has.

"(Parupalli) Kashyap bhaiya used to do that. A long time ago - maybe in 2008-2010, when he was in really good form, Lin Dan would have that jump smash. But Lin Dan's shot was a very trained one. Srikanth's is a natural. And now I don't think anyone hits that jump smash internationally like he does."

The deception

What makes that smash so dangerous, though, isn't the power of the punch.

"Srikanth doesn't have the hardest smash. But in that jump, there is a lot of deception. You really don't know which angle he is going to go. When he is in form, it's nearly impossible to guess," Prannoy says.

Over the course of the match, Chen found it increasingly difficult to figure out which way the shuttle was going. This by itself wouldn't decide the match. Chen's retrieving skills are amongst the best in the world. They keep him in play until he finds an opening he is confident of exploiting.

In the past, Srikanth has been caught in this trap as a 0-5 record against Chen, prior to this encounter would suggest. Having committed himself to the smash, he often wouldn't have a follow up shot. Not on Sunday though.

"Against Chen Long, the idea is to stick with him from the first point. You can't let him get away. If is able to recover a shuttle, you have to be confident that you can stay and return another 10 shuttles before you get another chance. Srikanth did that," says Prannoy.

"He trusts his fitness now. When you are injury free and the mind is clear, the confidence stays," says coach Gopichand. And indeed Srikanth not only stayed in the fight, he confounded him repeatedly. At game point in the first game, Srikanth's smash was a slower one that caught Chen Long completely off guard.

"If it was any faster, Chen Long would have picked it," says Kashyap.

Match awareness

While it is easy to construct a match strategy against a high quality opponent, Srikanth's ability to execute it at will was remarkable.

His mistakes were noticeable only because they were so infrequent. At 13 all in the first game, Srikanth followed up a smash to his opponent's forehand, with a rush, after a moment's hesitation, to the net followed by a push to Chen's backhand, amongst the strongest in the circuit.

It was an error he would scarcely repeat after that. The Indian kept the game to the back of the court after that. His variations would be in pace and the direction of his attack.

"When you go to attack against him, you need to attack every single corner. You can't try for the straight smashes and hope that that might be enough. Srikanth was hitting crosscourt smashes also and that was making it difficult for him to judge which side the shot was coming," says Prannoy.

Going for the kill

Having blunted his opponent's defence in the first game, Srikanth would dismantle it entirely in the second. With the added security of a one game lead, he fell back on the style of play that was most synonymous with him.

In the first point, Srikanth at first began to trade long clears with Chen - almost in the style of a pre-match warmup-before rising to slam a winner down the line. It was a moment where the Indian first spotted a trace of vulnerability in his opponent and he never let him get away.

Srikanth admitted later that the rally was when the kill switch was flicked on.

"I was not challenging him; I was challenging myself, about how long I can last. It was a critical point, I think it changed his attitude maybe, if he had won that rally he would've kept playing that way," he said.

"But not many like those rallies happened in the second game after that. So I think that really changed the attitude of both of us."

Indeed, no subsequent point went anywhere close to the duration of the duels of first game, with Srikanth killing points almost always at the first smash. At no stage did it seem Chen had a chance to come back in the game. It was the Chinese player who fell apart. Match point was conceded through a service error while the match was lost to a return clear that went hopelessly long.

'Realising his potential'

As far as matches go, no coach could have asked for anything more. Certainly not Gopichand, who prior to the match had said a victory would be 'amazing.'

And indeed even as Srikanth heads home after perhaps the most successful international spells of his career, Gopichand says the biggest victory is not in silverware but a more intangible one.

"He always had the quality. He has had the results in the past between 2014 and 2015 and even at the Olympics. But in the last few weeks it has been good to see him come to realise his potential."