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The year of Kidambi Srikanth

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'Not worried about the end result, it is just about playing well' - Srikanth (2:49)

The year of Srikanth Kidambi feature (2:49)

In October this year, just a couple of weeks before Diwali, Kidambi Srikanth completed his evening training session at the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Gachibowli, on the outskirts of Hyderabad, and headed home. For the first time in nearly a decade, this didn't mean room number 107, which he shared with two other players, just below the practice courts.

Instead, Srikanth drove 10km to a three-storey villa in the suburb of Telapur, into which he, his brother Nandu and parents Krishna and Radha had just moved in. There he would play with his three young dogs, plonk his heavy kitbag in the corner of his own room, sit at his family's dining table, chat with his father as he ate his mother's home-cooked meals, sleep in his own bed and prepare for the next day of training.

Owning your first home is a momentous life step for the average 24-year-old, but it was an especially significant one for Srikanth. Ever since he first left his parents in Guntur as a nine-year-old to pursue a career in badminton, home meant a hostel room he shared with other athletes and, at later times, an unfamiliar hotel room in a city where he was competing. "When I first left home I would feel very homesick. But I had always wanted to buy my own home and I feel really happy that I am with my parents again," he says.

Srikanth's wait for his home mirrors his rise as a professional badminton player. Back in late 2014, when he first pored over glossy brochures, he was the hottest prospect in Indian men's badminton, in the middle of his breakout season. One in which he had beaten Olympic champion Lin Dan to win his first Superseries title in China.

Srikanth and his older brother Nandu would decide to make the first down payment in 2015, not long after he won his second Superseries in India and rose to a then career-high world No. 2 ranking. "It was a good time. When he made his first payment for the house, he was awarded the Arjuna award," recalls his father. The family had expected to get possession of the building in 2016. "We expected that Srikanth would travel for the Rio Olympics from here, but that didn't happen," says his father. At Rio, Srikanth suffered a heartbreaking quarterfinal loss to Lin.

Construction troubles eased though and, while workers still arrive daily to complete the final bits of wiring, the family managed to settle into their home shortly before the Denmark Open. "This year, Srikanth went to play the Denmark and France Superseries from this house. And he won those too," says his father. "It's been a lucky house for Srikanth."

And how. Winning in Denmark and France, along with the Indonesia and Australia Superseries titles he'd won earlier, means Srikanth won four of the 13 Superseries tournaments up for grabs in 2017. That was a feat only previously achieved by Lin, China's Chen Long and Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei, arguably the best male players in the history of badminton.

A 'difficult' start to 2017

None of this could have been predicted at the start of the year, when a stress fracture on his right ankle was still healing. The injury had been simmering for a while before eventually flaring up at the Korea Open in 2016. "It had been building up over the year. He should have treated it early on but since he had the Olympics, he had no option but to play through the injury. After he developed a stress fracture, the healing was slow because he had been compensating for the pain by stressing other parts of his leg. So the recovery time increased," says Kiran Reddy, a physiotherapist at the Gopichand Academy who has worked with Srikanth ever since he first joined.

He was forced to skip tournaments and his ranking fell, pushing him out of the top 30. It was a difficult time and Srikanth is aware of just how much it cost him. "I had reached the top eight when the injury happened. Had it not happened...by the year end I would have been in the top four for sure," he says.

At times, Srikanth needed protection from his own enthusiasm. Another staff member at the academy recalls how Srikanth attempted to get on the courts 'just to hit a couple of strokes' before the physio had given him the all-clear. All he managed was to get a severe dressing down from Pullela Gopichand himself. When he did return, his recovery was slow. "The All England was the first Superseries event after the injury. I couldn't get into any rhythm. And that's how it is when you miss international badminton. You don't really know at what level your opponents are playing," he recalls.

Srikanth now says it was a matter of biding his time before he got back to the top but not everyone else was so gung-ho at the time. Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo took over the day-to-day coaching responsibilities from an overburdened Gopichand at the time Srikanth returned from injury. Handoyo, a grey-haired, chain-smoking technician who once coached Taufik Hidayat all the way from schoolboy to Olympic champion, was aware of Srikanth's promise as well as his limitations. "He beat Lin Dan in 2014 and he had won some tournaments. He had good skill, but there was no consistency," he says.

"The consistency isn't something that suddenly happens. It's the process of working on myself for the last five years."

Srikanth

Indeed, Handoyo had a middling opinion of Indian men's badminton players in general. "PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal were already at a good level," he says. "But Indian men's players were not the same. They didn't have mental toughness. When I was coach in Indonesia, before I came to India, my strategy with Indian players was simple: you play long enough and they will give up."

Srikanth's transformation didn't happen overnight. The change of program under Handoyo wasn't easy to adapt to. "The first month [was] difficult," says Handoyo. "Sometimes I would shout at them because they [tried] with only 50 per cent of the effort. My target was: 'You must become a champion. You must follow the program.'"

He asked Srikanth his purpose for playing badminton. The purpose for leaving his family and making a career out of the sport. "I asked: 'Do you just want to play or do you want to be champion? If you play badminton like a professional, you will get everything. But you must want to do it.' Then Srikanth said he will do it," Handoyo says.

Handoyo would hype up his trainee. Ahead of the India Open, he told ESPN Srikanth reminded him of Taufik. But he worried whether Srikanth had that confidence too. "I do not know if he believed me then," Handoyo recalls.

This was because, despite the hard driving, results were poor initially. Srikanth lost out in the first round of the All England Superseries and then was thrashed 11-21, 6-21 by Viktor Axelsen in the India Open.

The tide was about to turn, though -- and right on cue. Following his injury diagnosis the previous year, Kiran Reddy had said a hundred per cent recovery would take eight months -- a timeline reaching completion in March 2017. Srikanth reached the final of the Singapore Open in mid-April, his first final since the 2015 India Open. Though he lost to compatriot B Sai Praneeth, making it this far was a huge confidence boost. "Singapore was that tournament where I got that rhythm back. That's when I knew I could compete " Srikanth says.

That tournament could so easily have gone the other way. In his second match, against Malaysia's Ihsan Moulana Mustafa, Srikanth was three match points down in the third game before he came back to win five straight points and claim the game. "That was the match that turned the momentum for me this season. Who knows if I had lost that match, whether the rest of the year might have gone the way it did," he says.

Srikanth went on to end his Superseries drought in Indonesia and begin an incredible run. Over the next four months, he won four of the six tournaments he entered. He racked up wins against world No. 1 Son Wan Ho (at the Indonesia and Australia Superseries), Olympic champion Chen Long (Australia Superseries) and world champion Axelsen (Denmark Open).

The winning formula

So what changed for Srikanth? What explains his new-found consistency? "It isn't something that suddenly happens," says Srikanth. "I've been working on myself for the last five years. I'm a lot more of a complete player now."

Srikanth's previous success had been built on a very solid foundation. "Srikanth always had a great ability to hit wonderful smashes and follow it up very quickly at the net," says former national champion Arvind Bhat, who has travelled as a coach with Srikanth to the Denmark Open and French Open. "It scares opponents. It's particularly scary when the shuttles are flying fast."

But this was not enough, as coach Handoyo explains. "You need speed, you need power, you need endurance and defence. You need to be complete. If even one thing is missing, you will find it very difficult to be consistent. When Srikanth has speed, power and endurance, he becomes consistent," he says.

Once Srikanth recovered from his stress fracture, his other talents could finally reveal themselves entirely even as the rough edges were ground down by Handoyo's relentless training. He was, by Handoyo's own judgment, among the fastest players he had worked with. Handoyo makes this assessment on the basis of his handwritten notes on the result of a version of the shuttle run he conducts.

The test goes like this. The Indonesian places six shuttles about six metres apart on either side of the court tramlines and has players sprint and pick the shuttles and place them on the other side. "I did this test before the Indonesia Superseries. Most players take around 16 seconds to complete it. Prannoy is very quick and can finish it in around 15 seconds but Srikanth does it in 14.9 seconds. That is very fast," he says.

In all the years he has run this test, only one player has recorded a time as fast as Srikanth's. "Only Taufik could do it as quickly. In fact, he took the same amount of time as Srikanth did. I have it written down," he says.

But it wasn't just his natural speed that seemed to keep Srikanth almost a step ahead of his rivals on court. Srikanth's strokeplay played a part too, especially at the net, where he is particularly hard to match. "Srikanth has the feel for the shuttle. This is very important. Badminton is not about mathematics. It is about feeling the shuttle on the racquet. For example, when you are crossing at the net, what kind of feeling. Or when you push, it is different. When you receive the shuttle, it feels different if you are hitting with a punch or if you want to drop it. You can learn strokes if you practice enough but it is easier if a player has the feeling in his hand," says Handoyo.

While the delicacy comes from his hand, his power and deception come from the wrist. Srikanth's joints have the trademark Hyderabadi suppleness. "This is what it sounds like. Phwack!!" he says, as if to mimic the sound of a shuttle exploding off a flicking racquet. "His wrist is very good. The shoulder only supports. The most important is the wrist. When you flick and you have strong wrists, with the same movement you can move it anywhere you want," Handoyo says. "If me and Srikanth are playing, I can hit very hard and the shuttlecock will go slow. When Srikanth just flicks, it will go like 'fizz'. And I won't always know where it is going."

And when the dribbles at the net didn't get opponents, Srikanth's whip-like smash did. There are other players who can hit the shuttle harder but few find the corners as accurately as Srikanth does. On the international circuit, Srikanth is reckoned to have one of the most accurate smashes. Handoyo cups his hands and spreads them until they are about four inches apart. That, he says, is the margin for error when aiming for the corners. "Even someone like Sindhu will hit this 60 per cent of the time. For Srikanth, it is almost 80 and sometimes even 90 per cent." he says. Again, it is a number that he reckons Hidayat would have matched. "100 per cent is only God," he jokes.

But these skills are only one part of the story behind's Srikanth's success this past year. As Srikanth would admit, his game was one-dimensional. He suffered -- as did other Indian players, according to Handoyo -- from a lack of endurance. Apart from increasing the duration of training sessions, Handoyo also began a gruelling track-running routine to increase Srikanth's endurance. At the SAI Academy near the badminton complex, he would stand with a stopwatch in hand as Srikanth completed three rounds of one mile (four laps of the 400m running track) sprints. When he began, Srikanth ran each of the three sets in just over the six-and-a-half-minute mark. "After four or five months I set the target at 5 minutes and 45 seconds for three sets. That was the goal," he says.

Srikanth currently runs two of the sets under the limit but still struggles to finish below the six-minute mark for the third sprint. And even now, Handoyo has revised the targets. "His goal should be to run each set in five minutes, 30 seconds."

The runs were sapping. "It was not easy. He doesn't cry but there were times he didn't want to continue. He kept on working," an attribute that Handoyo says set him apart from many of his colleagues. "There is no secret to doing well. My training is simple but it is hard. But it is hard to be consistent. Everyone can work hard for one month and then stop," he says.

Payoff of improved fitness

Improved endurance has meant that Srikanth is now a far superior player in deciders. He is 10-2 in three-game matches beginning from the All England Superseries this year. In the year leading up to that point, he lost 10 of the 12 times he played three games. Secure in the belief that he can stay in the fight, Srikanth doesn't need to play in just a single way. The change was most apparent in the final of the Australia Open Superseries. His opponent, the Chinese giant Chen, excels in defence, wearing down opponents who find it impossible to get anything past him. In the first point of the second game, Chen picks two early probing attempts by Srikanth to smash. The rally transitions to a trading of clearing shots with both sides looking for an opening. "Chen Long, he was trying to get Srikanth to rally. He was counting on Srikanth not to have that mental strength and try to finish the point," he says.

But Srikanth doesn't take the bait. Handoyo struggles to find the right words and then uses a translating software to explain what Srikanth does. "Tunggu saat yang menentukan."

"He waits for the decisive moment," Handoyo explains. It comes in the 45th shot of the rally when Chen lifts a clear perhaps a foot short of the far corner. This time, Srikanth's smash finds the corner of the court, a few inches short of being called out and just a few inches beyond Chen's despairing racquet.

Minute margins

At the highest level of sport, margins are minute. It is the ability to push on where others give up that has given Srikanth the edge. "The thing that separates the top three players is about playing well on that given day. It is just who is that five per cent better on the day that decides the match. It is difficult for all of us. You feel that. Many thoughts running in your mind telling you to give up. But you have to push through it. It's like in the third game when you are 15-all or 16-all. That's what reflects on how you push yourself in training. If you can push yourself in training, you can push yourself in a match," he says.

Srikanth has been on both sides of that percentage. "There have been matches where I should have won but I lost. And there have been matches where I should have lost," he says.

None more so than in the quarterfinals and semi-finals of the French Open against Shi Yuqi and compatriot HS Prannoy. In both matches, Srikanth recovered from a game down and trailing in the second to win in three. "They were playing really well. But at the crucial point, I played that five per cent better than them. At that moment it is just about sticking to your opponent. Don't give any easy points. It is just to stay in the match. That's it," he says.

That ability to stay calm under fire is what stands out for Bhat. "If there is one big difference in how Srikanth played when he was young and now, it is how mentally calm he is. He is very confident of what he has to do. It is a great ability to be able to see your victories and losses in an even manner," he says.

Mental conditioning isn't something Srikanth has consciously worked on, though. "It is probably something you gain as you get older. You know what to do in crucial situations. I've lost many matches in the third game. That experience teaches you a lot of things. The greatest learning is how to pull off matches in crucial situations and how to stay calm in these crucial situations," he says.

The effects of success

It is an unusual situation for Srikanth to now find himself in. "When I started the year, I didn't think I would have won four Superseries titles. I thought it would take a year at least to get to my full potential but it got done a lot quicker than that," he says. He's had to deal with pressures he never expected he would face. "I was surprised myself to see people recognise me. I'm still getting used to it," he says.

Srikanth says he hasn't changed, though. The flashy neon-green Kawasaki Ninja parked outside his home belongs to his brother Nandu. Srikanth prefers a mid-market SUV, which is probably better to drive on the unmetalled road to his home. His room is remarkably bare. His closet has several India blazers but few shirts. There is a single pair of dress shoes. His beard, which he lets grow out when on the road, is a constant source of pique for his father. "Ninety per cent of my life has been about badminton. I'm meeting the same people and training the same way. Absolutely nothing has changed." he says.

That assessment is not entirely true, though. Not long after he returned home from his second title this year, at the Australian Open, Srikanth sprung a surprise on his parents. He got himself his first tattoo -- an illustration of a flute with the word Radha inscribed below. It was a tribute to his family but not everyone was impressed. "It was strange because he had no interest in fashion. Of course I shouted because he got the tattoo on his right wrist. That's his playing hand," says father Kidambi.

"The track running was not easy. Srikanth doesn't cry but there were times he didn't want to continue. He kept on working, though."

Mulyo Handoyo

Despite his short fling with ink, for the most part Srikanth prefers a life of quiet domesticity. He doesn't return home after his morning session, preferring to sleep at the academy itself. When he does return following his evening practice, he is greeted by his dogs -- the six-month-old Labrador Max and two Shi Tzus, Rocky and Angel. "He will relax with them for some time. When he has time, Srikanth likes to help his mother in cutting vegetables but at least we will sit together for dinner. He prefers simple food. He will usually request his mother to make the spicy fried potatoes and eat it with rice and dal," says his father. "At home, Srikanth isn't the badminton champion or the Superseries winner. He is just one of our sons. He doesn't get special treatment."

And it's that way at the academy, too. "Srikanth hasn't let all his success get in his head because he is only one among so many champions in the academy. Even before him there were PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal who achieved so much," says his brother Nandu. Srikanth understands this is how it is too. "It isn't something that will remain forever. It is something that I have now because I am performing. Performance is the key. For me, that is the key. It is about performing and working hard, not about the fame. The fame remains only as long as you are performing and play well," he says.

Indeed, for all of Srikanth's success, there are still shortcomings he has to overcome. To add to the challenge is the fact that he might have to do this in the absence of Handoyo, who is uncertain to continue as coach over the next year. "On a fast court, Srikanth is almost unbeatable," says Bhat. "But he still finds it harder on a slow court where his smash doesn't travel as fast. That's when he has to work harder."

There were matches this year, such as at the Australian Open, where Srikanth was able to adapt to his surroundings, beating the defensive master Chen at his own game. Yet at his most recent tournament, the season-ending Dubai Superseries Finals, those vulnerabilities were exposed, aided in part by the fact that he was recovering from a shoulder strain.

And for all his titles this season, Srikanth has faltered where it mattered most. He lost to Son Wan Ho in the quarterfinals of the World Championships after beating him in the previous two Superseries. The Dubai Superseries Finals was another disappointment.

"There's no doubt that Srikanth is one of the best players in Indian badminton and maybe the best men's singles player ever," says Bhat. "But he still can't be spoken of in the manner that PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal are. He is missing that one big title. Even someone like Taufik Hidayat won just one Superseries, but it doesn't matter because he won an Olympic gold medal."

Srikanth admits as much. As at the Kidambi house, he continues to work on himself. "I still feel I need to work on a lot of things. I need to improve on so many things. I've been compared to some really big names. I don't even think I can be compared to Gopichand sir or Prakash Padukone sir. I don't feel that I can be compared to them because they've done a lot for Indian sport. I still think I need to do a lot before I can think of myself as among them," he says.