Kidambi Srikanth remains India's best, but a class below the rest

Kidambi Srikanth during his loss to Japan's Kento Momota in the quarterfinal of the 2019 All England Championships. Simon West/Action Plus via Getty Images

1-11 and 3-15.

Kidambi Srikanth's capitulation in the opening game of the Indian Open final against Viktor Axelsen only put more focus on those numbers, which represent Srikanth's win-loss record against the top five and top 10 players in the BWF World Rankings since his triumph at the French Open in 2017.

Axelsen and Srikanth might only be separated by three spots in the world rankings, but any result other an Axelsen win would have been a massive upset.

Before this match, Srikanth had lost five of his last six matches against Axelsen, failing to even take a game off him in any of those defeats.

His only win came at the Denmark Open in 2017, a match where Axelsen was struggling with his fitness after a late finish to his match in the previous round.

This begs the question - where does Srikanth stand with respect to the best players in the world?

Is he India's best male singles player?

Among active players, Srikanth has easily been India's most consistent ever since Parupalli Kashyap suffered a serious injury in early 2016. That injury meant that Srikanth went to the Rio Olympics, where he reached the quarterfinals in a creditable display before losing to Lin Dan.

Srikanth is also the only Indian to win multiple Superseries titles; no other Indian man has won more than one Superseries/World Tour 500 and above events. Even in this tournament, Srikanth defeated Sameer Verma, who had beaten B Sai Praneeth in the second round.

He has also mostly been a fixture in the top 10 in the world rankings for the better part of the last two years.

Wait, wasn't he the best in the world last year?

Srikanth was ranked number one in the world for a week in April last year, becoming only the second Indian man after Prakash Padukone to top the world rankings.

That came on the back of his career's most successful year in 2017, when he became only the fourth player to win four men's singles Superseries titles in a calendar year.

But for all his achievements, it is worth noting that Srikanth failed to reach the semis at the three biggest tournaments of that year - the World Championships (quarterfinals), Superseries Finals (round-robin stage) and the All England Open (first round).

That pattern continued in 2018, as Srikanth failed to qualify for the World Tour Finals, which featured the best eight players on the World Tour. He also lost early in the three World Tour 1000 events: All England Open (first round), Indonesia Open (second round) and China Open (quarterfinals).

However, his most disappointing display came at the Worlds, where he lost to journeyman Daren Liew in the third round after all the seeds in his quarter had exited by the second round. In fact, he was the highest seed left in the lower half of the draw, which should have been a clear path to the final.

So is he no longer among the best players in the world?

Srikanth's consistency since the Rio Olympics makes it amply clear that he deserves to be among the top 10 players in the world. However, he is just a notch below the very best - Kento Momota, Viktor Axelsen, Chen Long, and Lee Chong Wei.

Among the current top 10 players in the world, Srikanth only has a positive head-to-head record against Shi Yuqi, who is three years younger than him and yet to reach his peak.

Srikanth's achievements make him one of India's best players of all time, but considering his inferior record against the top players, he is likely to be recognised as a first-class slayer of second-class competition.

Srikanth faces Lee in the first round of the Malaysia Open on Tuesday, with Lee coming back from an eight-month layoff after battling nose cancer. A win there for Srikanth would be a good start to laying claim to being among the very best in the world.

Can he be a serious contender at the biggest tournaments?

If you have seen Srikanth play for any length of time, it is clear to see that he has all the tools to be a top four player. However, his tendency to start slow in the biggest matches - such as the Olympic quarterfinal against Dan - and struggle while near the finish line, has cost him in the past.

Interestingly, Srikanth's best displays came under the tutelage of the Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo, and his performances declined once Handoyo left the Indian team.

Srikanth is yet to resemble anything close to his peak form under Pullela Gopichand, so a change of coach or a different voice in his head can surely do him no harm.

As far back as 2017, Srikanth had told ESPN, "I still feel I need to work on a lot of 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 still need to win a big tournament like the All England, the world championships, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics. That is the target."

Till he improves on that 1-11 record though, he might have to settle for being the best of the rest, rather than the very best.