The fault in his stars: Srikanth battles time and fate in Tokyo race

Three Indians are currently ahead of Srikanth in the Race to Tokyo rankings. AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Kidambi Srikanth hasn't been to a movie theatre in at least six months. He's exasperated by his friends' animated plot revelations ruining the odd film he remotely contemplates catching on a streaming platform. He swears not to let his buddies botch his plans of catching his favourite Telugu director's biggie releasing later this year. "No way," he mutters, half-soliloquy, half to us. "I'm getting myself the best seats in the house for that one."

We're taking a breather from talking badminton. It's not the brightest speckle in his life right now.

It has been 27 months since Srikanth won his last major title, the French Open in October 2017. From his titanic, turbojet solo flight of 2017 -- becoming the first Indian male player to win four Superseries titles (from five finals) in a calendar year, which lofted him to the gilded distinction of being the first world No. 1 Indian male player -- the fairy tale suddenly went poof. Out of the 29 tournaments he played in 2018 and 2019, Srikanth lost 23 in the first round and made just two finals across two years: the Commonwealth Games (March 2018) and India Open (March 2019), finishing on the runners-up side each time. He has lost in the first round of all three tournaments -- Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia Masters -- he has made an appearance in so far this year and the 2020 Olympic dream is now rapidly swirling, twisting, narrowing and dipping into an eddy of despair.

A major part of Srikanth's problem has been an iliotibial band friction syndrome that he developed on his right knee last year. The band -- which runs along the lateral or outer region of the thigh, from the pelvis to the tibia, and crosses both the hip and knee joints -- offers stability to the knee as it flexes and extends, and its overuse causes friction, turning it into a common injury among athletes, especially runners and cyclists. "It [the injury] really, really slowed me down," Srikanth offers in surgical summation. "I have recovered now but every time I'm on court, there's a still a tiny worry somewhere at the back of my mind. I ask myself, 'What if it happens again?'"

The injury was only aggravated by a delayed recovery break. "He picked up the injury in April last year ahead of the Sudirman Cup when we were in the process of increasing his training load," says Dr Kiran Challagundla, physio at the Gopichand academy who works closely with the top players. "The injury itself wasn't major and had he taken three weeks off then, we could have had it sorted. But the Olympic qualifying period was around the corner and he had to dive into tournaments almost right away." It was only in late August, following the World Championships, that Srikanth could opt for a three-week break, skipping the China and Korea Open tournaments to focus on his rehabilitation.

But by then his confidence had been roundly punctured.

More than anything else, it's the quality of opposition he's been losing to that could be gnawing at Srikanth. He lost both his first-round matches at the Thailand and Indonesia Masters this year to a rank unknown, 21-year-old Indonesian Shesar Hiren Rhustavito. At last year's World Championships, he'd huffed and puffed against lower-ranked, obscure players Nhat Nguyen and Misha Zilberman before eventually exiting the competition after a straight-games, round-of-16 loss to 20-year-old Thai upstart Kantaphon Wangcharoen.

Srikanth is currently placed No. 26 in the Race to Tokyo rankings, with three Indians -- Sai Praneeth (11), Sourabh Verma (21) and Parupalli Kashyap (22) -- ahead of him. Only two Indians ranked in the top 16 within the April 30 qualifying cut-off date will make it to the Olympics. Between now and then, he has four Super 500-1000 tournaments -- the All England Open (Super 1000, March 11-15), India Open (Super 500, March 24-29), Malaysia Open (Super 750, March 31-April 5) and Singapore Open (Super 500, April 7-12) -- and a title win in even one could raise his qualification chances considerably.

"Earlier, before a game Srikanth would say, 'Yeah, of course, I'm going to beat him,' about almost any opponent," says HS Prannoy, world No. 27 and fellow trainee at the Gopichand academy. "I would think to myself, 'Wow, he has such amazing confidence.' And he would go out and beat them. He would breeze through the initial rounds and only unleash his natural game pre-quarters or quarters onwards then. Now he's actually working a lot harder, trying everything possible because when you're such in a zone you're not sure what might click. We've been together at the academy since 2012 and I've never seen him really stuck in a place of self-doubt but just looking at him after his injury and time off court, I feel he just hasn't been able to handle this phase."

Srikanth's slump has also coincided with the departure of former singles coach Mulyo Handoyo, whom he still runs into at tournaments, and the rise in the invincibility of reigning world No. 1 Kento Momota, who returned to the circuit in late 2017 after serving a ban over gambling. Across 2018 and 2019, Srikanth lost to Momota on all seven occasions they played each other. In January this year, hours after the Malaysia Masters, the van carrying Momota and four others was involved in a crash, killing the driver and bruising the 25-year-old Japanese severely. That incident, Srikanth says, shook him. "We heard of it just ahead of the Indonesia Masters, which he had already withdrawn from," he says. "It was scary. All of us travel in buses and cars at odd hours during tournaments in foreign countries and it could have been any one of us. No matter how fierce an enemy someone is on court, you don't wish terrible things for them."

While most of his peers ditched the off-season recovery for the blinding lights of a televised league in an already-choked calendar, Srikanth took his body's cue, sat out of the Premier Badminton League and opted for three weeks of training this year. Now, he feels he's moving better and hitting more shuttles in practice. "I think the next couple of months are going to be really good for me," says Srikanth. "Frankly, I'm not following the rankings or how far off I'm from the Olympic qualifying cut-off, because I know if I play to my potential I don't have to look ahead or behind me. I'll give it a shot. If it happens, great."

Challagundla attests that things could be looking better for Srikanth soon. The plan, he says, is for Srikanth to peak in time for the All England Open in March. "Srikanth's body type is such that whenever it is loaded -- whether it's plyometric drills, weights, endurance or agility sessions -- it responds," he says. "It's almost like an instant reflex. It's typical to those with a fast, attacking style of play -- as opposed to those with a slower, defensive style of play, who tend to be fresher with more rest rather than training. Physically, Srikanth is now almost as good as he was in 2017. What has changed, though, now are the physiological demands of the game."

The most telling one being the increased length of matches. Until a few years ago, easier encounters would average 30-35 minutes and tough ones 60 minutes. Now, the averages have go up to 45-50 minutes and 75-80 minutes, respectively.

"After the injury I became too protective about my knee, which knowingly or unknowingly may have affected my shotmaking. But now I want to concentrate on my attacking game which will give me confidence in the longer rallies." Kidambi Srikanth

"In badminton, there's nothing that can be typified as sufficient fitness," says Challagundla. "It's relative. Unlike a 100m sprinter who just has to watch how fast he can go in 10 seconds, in badminton it's not enough to be fit. You have to be fitter than your opponent and be able to last longer than him on court." To fit the rigours, the barrier of difficulty in training too has been increased. The idea behind high-intensive training modules, Challagundla says, is for players to be able to last long, high-pressure matches. The heart rate is paced to 180-190 bpm for 15-20 minutes in training, so that it could be good enough for at least a 45-minute match at a heart rate of 150bpm.

Challagundla, who formerly worked with the IPL side Deccan Charges in the inaugural season, holds six sessions in a week with Srikanth. "Before every session I ask the senior guys how their body is feeling and whether they prefer a moderate or rigorous session," he says. "Most players either state their preference or express that their body is not in great shape or that they're tired. With Srikanth, the answer is usually unchanged, 'Please give me the schedule, I'll do it.'"

It's also the kind of guy Srikanth is known to be, given to an economy of word, expression and emotion. "Srikanth doesn't open up easily to anyone," says Prannoy. "If he feels you're barging too much into his private space, he may just close himself up. He's probably dealing with a lot of questions within himself. It mustn't be easy for him."

Among those who've had a close look into Srikanth's mind, journey and its attendant trials is older sibling Nandagopal, who was the first among the two to pick up the sport and trained at the Gopichand academy where they shared a room for seven years. A doubles player on the national circuit, Nandagopal quit the sport last February and switched to a corporate job after he "ran out of motivation" to play badminton. "My career was headed nowhere," says Nandagopal. "I was just playing domestic tournaments and also finding partners was proving to be challenging. That's when Srikanth encouraged me to take a call on moving to something else." Nandagopal has traded his racket for sharp business suits in a 9-5 job, serving as the India head of promotions and marketing for the Chinese sports goods company Li-Ning specializing in badminton rackets and gear.

Nandagopal talks of Srikanth's need for constant motivation in his current phase. "He may not be expressive, but Srikanth is acutely aware of the changed attitudes of people towards him once he hit a low from the highs of two years ago. More than the injury, the recovery phase has been really hard on him. I don't think those around him have managed to keep him motivated enough." Nandagopal wants to travel, at his own expense, with his brother to a few tournaments during the Olympic qualifying window to be able to plug that gap. In November last year, he positioned himself in the coach's corner during Srikanth's pre-quarterfinal match against Parupalli Kashyap at the Syed Modi International, which Srikanth went on to win. "He doesn't need my technical inputs. He has his game under control. Then [during the Syed Modi tournament], all I was telling him was to retrieve with his life. He just needs someone to show him that belief."

Srikanth's current focus is to build on his attacking play. "After the injury I became too protective about my knee, which knowingly or unknowingly may have affected my shotmaking," he says. "But now I want to concentrate on my attacking game which will give me confidence in the longer rallies. Faster courts should work well for me and I want to be that guy who's hitting those monster smashes."

Outside badminton, the fullest extent of Srikanth's activities is currently limited to the 30 minutes of gaming with his close band of schoolfriends at dinner time. "He doesn't go out or socialize much," Nandagopal says. "It's just that half hour every night of either PUBG or F1 on his PS4. He doesn't go to bed without that session."

Srikanth himself has cut out his habit of watching movies on flights. "I sleep now," he says. "That's all I do on flights. Otherwise, it's just train, rest and train again. I can't get my mind to think of anything else.

"Right now, it's just badminton, badminton, badminton..."