Srikanth stutters in Dubai Finals opener

Srikanth and Axelsen during September's Japan Open TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

Kidambi Srikanth isn't quite a stickler for numbers. While the world around him pored over match-ups, combinations and did frantic math on his likely ascendance to the world No. 1 rank a month ago, he coolly passed up on the chance. Srikanth spent three weeks ranked second in the world, and now finds himself two rungs below.

"I'm totally ok with not being No 1 right now," the 24-year-old had told ESPN right after the Senior Nationals in October. He had picked up a thigh muscle strain and chose to rest rather than ruin a season-ender chance. He even went as far as to say that winning the Superseries Finals title would for him be a bigger priority than the top player status at the close of the year.

On Wednesday against reigning world champion Viktor Axelsen in Dubai, Srikanth didn't quite get off to the start he would have wished for, losing 17-21, 17-21. Through the most part of the 20-minute-long second game, you waited for the Indian to conjure a recovery. Midway through, he even looked like he could. But up against the superior defensive might of the current world No 1, it was never going to be easy.

Eight points on the trot early in the first game for Srikanth was good news for Indian fans close on the heels of PV Sindhu's win in the opener. Axelsen soon began flinging down-the-line winners and his tight net lifts hurried Srikanth into errors.

Trailing 0-4 in the second game, Srikanth unleashed his signature whiplash smash to close in 3-6. This was just before the defending champion Axelsen was schooled by the chair umpire for wiping the court with his towel. Axelsen was to snap: "Are you paying insurance?" in retort.

Reverse slices made intermittent but troubling cameos and the angles of his smashes grew steeper, often smack on the line, and out of a lunging Srikanth's reach. Axelsen raced to five-point cushion at the break as Srikanth increasingly muttered to himself and threw quick, anxious glances at courtside towards coach Pullela Gopichand. Nothing seemed to be working for Srikanth and he cut short his agony with a weak push into the net.

Before this match, both players had met on three occasions this year and Srikanth managed to win once, at the Denmark Open quarter-finals. After becoming the first Indian to win four Superseries titles in a single year, Srikanth was forced to miss the China Open and Hong Kong Open Superseries over the last month. Axelsen, an opponent Srikanth rates very highly, has also arrived in Dubai fresh after a mini break.

Only two of the four players in Group B will progress to the semi-finals of the Dubai year-ender and the Indian will have to win his next two matches (against Shi Yuqi and Tie Chen) to stand a fair chance. Srikanth will next play Chinese Taipei's Chen on Thursday.