Kidambi Srikanth is all smiles at the end of his 16-21, 21-14, 21-19 win over Huang Yuxiang in the semifinals of the India Open World Tour 500 on Saturday evening in New Delhi. As well he might. The 26-year-old has just snapped a 17-month, 15-tournament-long absence from the final of a World Tour/Superseries event. He is back where he belongs - competing for the big titles.
The drought had been particularly jarring for the Indian. "I'd rather lose in the first round if I can make a final in the next tournament rather than play quarterfinals," he said a day before the tournament.
It didn't matter to him that he had been remarkably consistent with nine quarterfinals and two semifinals in 2018. But quarterfinals and semifinals don't really compare with actual silverware - of the kind he had won at a record four different Superseries in 2017.
Just don't remind him about, it though. A day ago, Srikanth had snapped when he was asked exactly what he was doing to make 2017 so special for him. "Stop comparing me to 2017," he had said. "I have much more to give and I have grown from there. There is 2018. I became World No. 1 and I won a CWG medal. We have all moved on. It's two years ago. (I) think about 2019 and I am thinking about 2020. Don't make me go back to 2017. I am thinking about the future," he said.
His insistence only highlighted just how incredible that year was. Try as he might though, 2017 is a year that's not getting away from him anytime soon.
Srikanth says he's not sure if he has the tournament fitness he had two years back. "I don't know if I am at that level yet. But I am training hard and I am confident with my fitness levels," he said.
Indeed, from what has been seen on the court at the KD Jadhav Stadium, Srikanth still seems some way from the magical levels of touch and control he is certainly capable of. His matches have been peppered with errors, some at crucial times and the shifting drifts have made some of his judgment suspect too. Yet while his run to the final has not had as much of the fluency he is capable of, he's more than made up for that with his grit.
The first half of his pre-tournament quip - of preferring to lose in the first round if he was to subsequently make a final - nearly fulfilled itself after he trailed 17-11 in the decider in his opening contest against Vincent Wing Ki Wong. He had two separate comeback wins over his next three matches. He was down a game and 7-1 in his quarterfinal against B Sai Praneeth before eventually winning in three games. Yuxiang too led by a game and held a 17-14 lead in the third game before going down to an irrepressible Srikanth.
All that matters is that he is in the final. And if he is to recreate some of that 2017 form in 2019, the crown of the India Open is as good a place to get started as any. He has some history to fall back on, too. Not only is his record in finals impressive, he has won all but one of the seven World Tour 500 and above/Superseries finals he has competed in. Back in 2015, when the then 21-year-old first announced himself as the next big Indian to watch for, he won his second career Superseries title at the India Open. His opponent then too was Axelsen, whom he beat in three games.
Axelsen is a far improved player from then himself. He's had his share of troubles coping with the drift on the court in New Delhi but he's still in the ominous form he's carrying from a runner-up finish at the All England Championships. "The drift is a little difficult but once I got used to it, I started to make the right decisions," he said after his 21-11, 21-17 semifinal win over Parupalli Kashyap. But while the second game saw Kashyap even take a four-point lead at 14-10, the Dane recovered in time to cruise towards the finish. Indeed, unlike Srikanth, Axelsen hasn't conceded a single game at the competition and will be hoping to keep it that way in Sunday's final.
Srikanth for his part, insists the match against Axelsen is simply like any other. "I don't treat it different from playing a quarterfinal or anything," he says. But he admits he's glad to get the opportunity to be competing for titles once again. "I'm just going to enjoy playing a final this time."