The metamorphosis of Kidambi Srikanth


The second game was underway and coach Sudhakar Reddy paced courtside. After it ended 21-6, he walked up fuming to the boy stuffing a soggy face towel into his bag and roared: "Is this how you want to keep playing?" Eyes downcast, the 17-year old shook his head and answered meekly: "I'll do better next time." On Sunday -- seven years since that semi-final defeat at the junior nationals -- as Kidambi Srikanth raised his hands in celebration at the Sydney Olympic Park sports center after winning his second Superseries title in two weeks, Reddy felt an old promise being kept in a way he'd never imagined.

"Honestly," Reddy, under whom the 24-year old took his baby steps in the sport, tells ESPN, "I never expected Srikanth to achieve what he has so far. I'm glad he's surprised me."

After all, through his early years in the sport, he'd earned the notoriety of being a slacker.

Enrolling for badminton classes at the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh (SAAP) under their father's classmate, Reddy, in Vishakapatnam in 2001, the older sibling Nandagopal soon turned into a favorite for his diligent ways. Srikanth, then little over 8-years-old, was often caught at the wrong end of the coach's ire for his loathing of fitness sessions. "When Srikanth joined, he was the youngest among the batch of trainees and a very poor eater. He was lazy but a naturally talented player. To get him to do fitness sessions was a task and I ended up yelling at him almost every other day over this. I always felt Nandagopal would be the bigger star in future."

In his first international tournament at the U-16 Asia Championships in Jordan, Srikanth, turning out in the doubles, exited in the third round.

Through their junior years, Nandagopal, older to Srikanth by two years, seemed like the more promising prospect. He was tipped to be the star and Srikanth a decent doubles player at best. But life was to turn the plot around. "I played cricket for a few years but my father wanted me to take up an individual sport and that's how badminton happened and Srikanth followed me into it," says Nandagopal.

The siblings were polar opposites in many ways - Srikanth was shy, spoke little, ate frugally, looked for ways to give grueling training sessions a slip and was happy to get by in doubles, while his older sibling was hardworking, had big singles ambitions, and more outspoken. "I still do most of the talking for him," Nandagopal interjects over a laugh.

With Nandagopal moving to the Pullela Gopichad academy in Hyderabad in 2008, Srikanth felt his will to persist in the sport weakened. He stopped attending sessions under coach Reddy and returned to his hometown in Guntur. Watching Srikanth while away his time, his parents came up with the solution of moving him too to Hyderabad to train alongside his brother at the academy. More than anything else, Srikanth, was overjoyed at the idea of being re-united with his brother.

Moving to the academy turned the lives of the Kidambi siblings around. "Gopi sir wanted Srikanth to focus on singles and shifted me to doubles," he says. "Srikanth took some time to get used to the tough sessions, but once he did, the results began to show. In recent times, I only remember him skipping training twice, on the day of the release of both the Bahubali movies."

Apart from growing more disciplined, Srikanth, earlier a strict vegetarian, also took to meat to improve his dietary intake.

In 2013, the Kidambi siblings had their first taste of a big win. While Srikanth took apart top seed Boonsak Ponsana in the final of the Thailand Open GP Gold for his maiden international singles title, Nandagopal, teaming up with K Maneesha, brought home the Maldives International Challenge mixed doubles crown. Srikanth had previously won a bronze in the men's doubles and silver in the mixed doubles at the Commonwealth Youth Games in Douglas in 2011.

While for Nandagopal, the titles grew fewer and farther between, for Srikanth, it was to be a harbinger of bigger wins and greater conquests.

The following year, he slayed his idol, the then reigning Olympic and World champion -- one of badminton's biggest superstars -- Lin Dan, to lift the China Open, his first Superseries title. He was 21 then.

The years Srikanth spent playing doubles, Nandagopal adds, has only added to his skills as a singles player. "Mostly positioned in the forecourt, he would cover replies to the net as well as mid-court and play kills in doubles. It's helped in his defence and drives in singles."

Barring different training sessions, the Kidambi siblings have their meals together and pretty much spend the entire day in each other's company at the academy. With Gopichand bringing in Mulyo Handoyo, former World No. 1 Taufik Hidayat's coach, Srikanth's sessions have gone from grueling to punishing. It's what's made the difference, feels Reddy. "He would lose early in tournaments before, not because he was lacking in his game, but because he didn't have the stamina to last matches. But now with improved diet and training habits he's hit the perfect pitch."

Srikanth too is aware of the metamorphosis.

His win over fourth seed Shi Yuqi in the Australian Open semifinals last week, Nandagopal says, was the most jubilant he's seen Srikanth in recent years. "The last time he celebrated so much after a win was after beating Lin Dan in 2014." He'd probably sniffed a title this time.

For Nandagopal, who won two of his four major international doubles titles with V Diju, fortunes have been in a state of flux. After World Championship medalists Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa parted ways in December 2016, he paired up briefly with the latter before joining forces with Mahima Aggarwal. His deepest run into an international tournament recently was making the quarterfinals of the Syed Modi GP Gold. "I have had to change partners in between so that's slowed things down a bit. But when I look back I've no regrets to be playing doubles. It was a fair call by Gopi sir without which the world might not have known of Srikanth today."

With four Superseries titles, Srikanth now finds himself pitch-forked to the sixth spot in the list of all-time male winners and a windfall of rewards -- cash prizes, fat endorsement deals, a Mahindra TUV300 apart from a litany of felicitations, await.

Three successive Superseries finals, the most by a men's singles player this year, also puts him in contention for the World Championship title in August. While the other Kidambi, Nandagopal, plods through his career with equanimity taking the odd quarterfinal finish that comes his way, and says nothing makes him happier than to soak in his brother's successes. "I enjoy his victories," he adds, "I don't ask myself why he's doing well and I'm not."

"It's through my brother that I'm living my dream."