Kidambi Srikanth's chance of progress at the World Superseries Finals in Dubai came to an end with his second straight loss of the tournament -- an 18-21, 18-21 result against Chou Tien Chen of Taiwan on Thursday. After losing his opening match to Viktor Axelsen, Srikanth had needed to win both his remaining matches to hope of progressing. As such, his match on Friday against China's Shi Yuqi will be a formality.
The end for Srikanth came as he lifted a forehand clear into the net. The unforced error was symptomatic of his performance in the match and, indeed, the tournament. It was in contrast to his performances over the last eight months -- a period in which he had won a record four Superseries tournaments. Where Srikanth had been the epitome of consistency in that patch, he looked rusty and out of touch in Dubai.
Much of the blame for that is due to the fact that the 24-year-old was returning from an injury. He had aggravated a shoulder strain at the National Championships this year. In order to recover, he had opted out of the China Superseries Premier and the Hong Kong Open. While he did rest, Srikanth had only been training with the shoulder strain until a fortnight ago.
As a result, he wasn't nearly as effective as he could have been had he been match fit going into the year-ender of the international calendar. While Srikanth and Chou had been tied 1-1 in their head-to-head record going into the tournament, it was Srikanth who had had the far superior year coming into Dubai with a 37-8 record as compared to the Taiwanese player's 35-17.
Despite the difference in outcome, the two players have a similar playing style built around offence. Any matchup between the two would be determined by the more accurate player and Srikanth was simply the poorer of the two on the day.
By the time Chou went into the first game's interval, Srikanth had committed three unforced errors on his go-to weapon, the round-the-head smash, hitting one well wide and two into the net. He was also distinctly slower on the day, which allowed Chou to get into better positions and hit round-the-head smashes of his own. Srikanth found a bit of momentum as he saved six match points in the first game, yet the gulf was far too much and Chou eventually converted.
Srikanth started strong in the second game yet he was faced with another challenge. This one was owing to the nature of the court conditions. The Hamdan Sports complex had a pronounced drift from one end, making it hard for players to hit deep. This was a condition that had troubled Axelsen earlier in the day as the top-seeded Dane was upset by Shi Yuqi of China.
Srikanth, whose game is built around speed and deception but not physicality, was at a loss every time he tried to hit over Chou. Even his net game was hampered as he couldn't simply guide the shuttle over the net. Coach Pullela Gopichand could be overheard yelling 'poje' in Telugu -- exhorting Srikanth to 'poke' the shuttle.
Even as Chou tired owing to the pace he was setting, Srikanth, seemed set to push the match into a decider as he led 17-14 in the second. Yet Chou would find a second wind even as Srikanth seemed to run out of ideas. Luck seemed to fail him too. At 18-19 he appeared to hit a lucky net cord that the line umpire gave him. Srikanth pumped his fist as he celebrated staying in the contest. Yet Chou challenged the call and indeed the shuttle had fallen well out. That set up match point, which the Taiwanese converted at the first opportunity.
For Srikanth, the loss put an end to his hopes of advancing in what is only his third World Superseries Finals. Yet the result does little to take away from a stellar year. There were moments in the match which showcased just why he won those four big tournaments this year. Given another injury-free stretch, there is little reason he won't be back again next year.