It was only on Thursday evening that Kidambi Srikanth belatedly got around to editing his Twitter bio. For over two years the second sentence of the paragraph had read 'World Number 3 (career high)'. Now it is 'World Number 2 (career high)'.
News that the Indian had reached his career-best singles ranking had come through in the morning when the Badminton World Federation released its latest numbers. But Srikanth is notoriously lax, at least in this regard. "I guess I need to change it on my Twitter profile," he had told ESPN over the phone on Thursday afternoon. "I'm very poor with my social networking. I'm trying to change that side of me but it takes time. I've been told that I need to interact more on social media but I'm just not good at it." Srikanth, though, isn't really worried about developing a gregarious online personality anytime soon. "As long as I keep winning, I think I can get away with it," he says.
The 23-year-old has been doing plenty of winning in recent times. His rise to world No. 2 lifts him to rarified company. Among Indians, only Prakash Padukone, Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu have ever achieved a similar world rank. The immediate rank has come as a consequence of winning the French Open last Sunday. The Superseries title was his fourth of the year -- an Indian record all his own. His rise hasn't been as a consequence of playing the numbers game either -- Srikanth has beaten two world No. 1s to pick up his wins.
Srikanth has it relatively easier this week as he competes in the National Championships. It is the first time he will be participating in the men's singles' category since the 2013 edition, when he was crowned national champion. He has since been competing almost exclusively in the international circuit, a move hastened by his breakout 2014 season. He won his first Superseries title then at the China Open, beating Lin Dan in the final. Almost exactly three years to that day, Srikanth still finds it hard to believe he won. "I didn't even dream of winning that Superseries, because no one had done it before," he says. "I just wanted to play well and reach the semi-finals or something. That was what I felt I could achieve."
"Singapore was the most meaningful tournament for me. That tournament was where I feel the momentum changed and shifted in my favour. Even though I didn't win, I had come back from an injury and I had played a final."
In contrast, the new normal now seems to be an assured Srikanth presence in the tournament weekend -- as five Superseries finals this year would suggest. Yet Srikanth insists this isn't the case. "I still don't think that far ahead. I still find the initial rounds quite tough because I might be playing someone who has come through qualifying and is familiar with the court and conditions or someone whose style I'm unfamiliar with. In this situation there are a lot of things to think about," says Srikanth, who has indeed been taken to a decider in the opening two rounds in seven of the 12 tournaments this year. In contrast, just one of the five finals he has played this year has gone to three games.
What then explains Srikanth's monster year? Several reasons have been put forward, including improved fitness and a focus on doubles play as a junior. Srikanth doesn't entirely agree ("in doubles you mostly stand and hit, you can't do that in singles," he explains).
Much of the credit can rather be given to a mindset that has allowed him to shrug off the burden of expectations and focus all his attention where it needs to be on court. "I don't worry about the end result now," he says. "I don't have the pressure of winning. I'm OK if I lose. The only thing I want is to give my 100 per cent and play well. It is just about playing well. For me that is the mindset that might have made my style a little different. That is why perhaps I'm playing better."
It is a maturity that has developed over time and come with its own cost, he reckons. "I understand the game a lot more now," he says. "It has been a gradual learning. After losing a lot of matches you get to know that there will be matches where you can give your best and still not win."
The harshest lesson -- one that largely shaped his current mindset -- was one he received at the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics, where he lost by a razor-thin margin to Lin Dan. "I gave my best in that match," he says. "I played my heart out. But my opponent was that five per cent better than me. That match gave me an understanding I didn't have before. It changed me. I lost a quarterfinal at one of the biggest stages. Nothing I have ever played comes close to that match. Yet afterwards I had no regrets. If I was not really worried after losing in the quarterfinals of the Olympics, why will I even worry about losing a match in a Superseries?"
That rhetorical question Srikanth asked himself had a simple solution. "Whenever I come out of a court after a match, my only concern is that I should not feel regret that I didn't do this or I should have tried that," he says. "I want to do whatever is correct at that moment. That is all that matters."
Despite that clarity of thought, Srikanth admits there have been moments of self-doubt that preceded his incredible run. An ankle injury late last year saw his ranking fall into the 30s as he struggled to return to form. And so it isn't any of his title wins this season but rather his run to the final of the Singapore Open -- the first of his five Superseries finals this year -- that he counts as the turning point for his season.
"Singapore was the most meaningful tournament for me," says Srikanth, who had last reached a Superseries semi-final in June the previous year. "That tournament was where I feel the momentum changed and shifted in my favour," he says. "Even though I didn't win, I had come back from an injury and I had played a final. In the pre-quarterfinal [against Malaysia's Ihsan Maulana Mustofa], I saved three match points to win that match. That gave me the confidence that I can still do well. I knew then that my fitness was on a par with others and I was still improving. I was a little scared to push myself after the injury and it was only after Singapore that I got the self-belief that my body can take this load and even be pushed further."
If Singapore was where his self-belief returned, a week later in Jakarta was when Srikanth believes he knew he was about to have a special year. At the Indonesia Open, he beat former world No. 2 Jan O Jorgensen and world No. 1 Son Wan Ho on his way to the title. "There were not a lot of big players in Singapore," he says. "There was no Chen Long, no Lee Chong Wei and no Lin Dan. At Singapore I knew I could compete with the top 10 players in the world. But Indonesia is where I had to play the best in the world. I knew I was physically in good shape and I was confident with my training and my strokes. But still in the back of your head you don't know how you will play against a top-level guy until you do. I knew things were turning around in Singapore but Indonesia was where I knew I was where I wanted to be," he says.
Indonesia would be followed by the Australian Open crown -- which he could claim only after beating Olympic champion Chen -- and then the Denmark Open title -- which required a comeback win over world champion Viktor Axelsen -- and finally France.
It wasn't just skill that took him through but also superior fitness to withstand the lung-destroying, muscle-scourging workload. Energy conservation is decidedly less glamorous than dazzling strokeplay, yet it is that aspect of the game that has been crucial to Srikanth's success. "If you playing the first tournament in a circuit, it is about starting well," he says. "That first competition is about planning strategy. After that first tournament, it is about doing your recovery well. You have to think about your body. You have to focus on many things to keep you fit for that second week."
It is also a variable that has had a role to play in the declining fortunes of Lin, Chen and Lee. The big three of badminton had dominated the international circuit for the past decade but now have been slowed by the inexorable march of time. It is expected that a new generation of players helmed by Axelsen and Srikanth will take over but the Indian doesn't believe that generational shift is wholly assured just yet.
"It isn't like they are moving out," he says. "Lin Dan just played a World Championships final and Lee Chong Wei played the final of the Japan Open. I think they are definitely not as consistent as they used to be. But they are still big players with a lot of experience. It is important for the rest of us to stay focused and not get carried away that they are not playing at the same level as they used to. Because when someone like Lin Dan or Chen Long plays big events, they will still find a way to deliver."
There is a plain truth to Srikanth's assessment. Sandwiched between his four Superseries titles was a quarterfinal exit at the World Championships -- a straight-games loss to Son. It is one of the few matches which Srikanth feels the 'regret' he looks to avoid. "I was happy with how I was playing at the World Championships but my strategy wasn't right in the quarterfinals," he says. "The only regret I had was that I didn't start very well. If I had started a little better then I would have been closer. In the last few points it is anyone's game."
That loss threw up another target for Srikanth. "It has been a great year but every tournament is different," he says. "The Superseries is something you play largely for yourself. The country isn't such a big part of it. The real pressure comes when you are playing for your country in the big tournaments. Winning Superseries is a big deal but winning a medal at the Worlds and Olympic is my goal. It is a matter of being consistent in these tournaments. I will get there."
Getting there might also require Srikanth to lighten his workload, something he has often spoken of in recent weeks. Competing in the national championships might not have been the most judicious choice after three weeks on the road and Srikanth might well take a break following the competition. Having already qualified for the year-ending World Superseries Finals in Dubai, he now finds himself facing an unprecedented choice of opting out of the China Open, where he first broke into the national spotlight three years ago, and the Hong Kong Open in mid-November. "I haven't really taken a decision about that yet," he says. "China is a Superseries Premier event, so I might want to take part but ultimately it depends how my body is feeling at the nationals."
The fact that a strong run in Beijing could propel him to a historic world No. 1 rank doesn't entice him for its own sake. "Right now I'm happy to be world No. 2," he says. "World No. 1 would be great but when you really perform, all these things don't matter. You don't care about the win as long as the journey is good."