Relaxed Srikanth makes winning big a habit

AP Photo/Thibault Camus

Sixteen minutes into the men's singles final of the French Open, Kidambi Srikanth led 21-14. In sight of a fourth Superseries title this year, he was halfway into what would be a 21-14, 21-13 bullying of a largely clueless Kenta Nishimoto. As he sauntered towards his coaches at that first changeover, he may as well have been a Hyderabadi out for a post-siesta evening stroll.

It fell on coach Arvind Bhat, himself a former national champion, to talk tactics and pep. It was a harder-than-expected task simply because there was little Srikanth was doing wrong. "You can improve your body language," Bhat finally ended up saying.

While it might have come across as unintentionally harsh, Srikanth does have an unhurried air that is in complete contrast to how he actually plays the game. With his unkempt travel beard, hand-tousled hair and slight frame, he lacks the sheer intimidation of Chen Long, the larger-than-life confidence of Lin Dan or the buzzing intensity of a Lee Chong Wei. Yet he now stands shoulder to shoulder, if a bit awkwardly, with those legitimate greats of the game.

Going into the final, Srikanth was one of just five men to compete in five Superseries finals in a year. With his win over Nishimoto, he joined those three greats as the men's singles players to have won four or more Superseries titles in a calendar year. Srikanth is already the most successful Indian badminton player in terms of Superseries titles in a year.

Yet Bhat's point about Srikanth's body language still stands. He's remarkably modest about his achievements for one. "There were some close matches. I've been a bit lucky," he said after Sunday's victory of his run in the past two weeks.

Coming into the tournament after becoming only the second Indian to win the Denmark Open he had implied he was tired -- Sunday's final was his tenth Superseries match in 12 days -- and suggested to ESPN that he might start having to pick and choose tournaments. A strapping just below his right knee looked to have been a safeguard against injury.

Indeed, for much of the week at Paris' Stade Pierre de Coubertin, Srikanth had seemed as if he was just about ready to make an exit. He was down a game in his quarterfinal against defending champion Shi Yuqi and in the semi-final against compatriot HS Prannoy, before eventually deciding to get on with the matter and wining in three. He was seemingly out on his feet in the final against Nishimoto. He trailed 9-4 early in the opening game, giving away two points with tired-looking shots that went out. And then, of course, he appeared to crack his knuckles and make the decision to get on with it.

Once Srikanth does get going, there is little that matches up. Teammate Parupalli Kashyap reckons he is the quickest player in international badminton. And while his whiplash smash is what fans notice, his speed to get behind the shuttle is what worries his opponents.

Nishimoto's game is built on speed too. While he is ranked world No. 40, he had had an exceptional tournament, coming through qualifying and beating Lee. None of this mattered after the first 13 points of the match. "I started slow. But after that I wanted to do a better than I did. He is an aggressive player and I didn't want to give him a chance," Srikanth said. Indeed he didn't.

There were few rallies as Srikanth wrapped things up with a trademark smash down the line in 36 minutes.

Perhaps this relaxed version of Srikanth is for the better. He has had his share of difficulties over the past year. He hasn't always worn the burden of being India's best-rated men's player lightly. Srikanth has spoken of those times too. After he won the China Open in his breakout year in 2014 and then the India Open the following year, he grasped greedily at any opportunity to boost his ranking and cement his claim to be among the best. It was self-inflicted pressure that would be impossible to deal with. Mental troubles following a quarterfinal loss at the Olympics proved near debilitating before he found his mojo at the Indonesia Open this year.

Srikanth has learned from those lessons. This isn't to say he has become casual about his approach to competition. The fact that he was able to play 10 high-level matches across two countries in less than a fortnight with minimal recuperation speaks of the work he has put in training. "I'm surprised with it too," he joked before addressing the matter seriously. "The kind of work we have done over the last nine or 10 months has made this possible. I'm not afraid of playing long matches. That is the mindset I have now."

But Srikanth is a lot more relaxed when it comes to his performances. His French Open triumph will see him rise to a career high world No. 2 when the BWF rankings are released next week. But he isn't tempted to try to make the push to become No. 1. He is scheduled to play in the China Open and then the Taiwan Superseries -- which could see him climb all the way to the top -- in three weeks' time, but reiterates his desire to pick and choose tournaments.

"I'm not sure whether I will play," he said. "I have already qualified for the [World] Superseries Finals, so it is a decision that will have to be made. I think there is a lot of difference between me and [world No. 1] Viktor Axelsen. Definitely it's good to be near there but I don't want to push myself up the ranking. I just want to enjoy playing."