Despite displaying the most consistent badminton he's played all year, Kidambi Srikanth lost to world no.2 Chou Tien Chen 22-20, 13-21, 15-21 in the quarterfinal of the Denmark Open badminton tournament on Friday. His loss to the Chinese Taipei player was his sixth in seven encounters as well as his sixth consecutive loss to the same opponent. The Indian's last win against Chen had come in 2014.
But despite the drought against Chen getting extended on Friday, there were positive signs for Srikanth to take from his loss.
To put things in perspective, Srikanth's last win came right around the start of 2017, a breakout year for the then 21-year-old Indian. That season had seen Srikanth winning his first Super Series Premier Open at the China Open, beating the then reigning Olympic champion Lin Dan. Srikanth would build on that success, eventually rising to World no.1 in 2017. Since then though, the Indian had appeared to fade. Injuries - particularly a niggle in his right knee that has plagued him persistently since the summer of 2019 -- began to take a toll as did the pressure of making the 2020 Olympics.
He's had a dismal run (W4, L6) in 2020 with four first round exits and was 22nd in the race-to-Tokyo rankings (he had to be in the top 16 to be certain of a place) when the international calendar was suspended in mid-March. More than one commentator has wondered if his confidence had not slipped as well.
The break appears to have worked for him though. His injury has healed completely and he's playing free of pain and worry for the first time in months. By reaching the quarterfinals, Srikanth had already gone further than he had all year. While wins against Toby Penty and Jason Anthony Ho Shue in earlier rounds were less challenging, the match against Chen was his real test.
Against Chen though - an opponent to whom he had lost 21-17 21-5 in just half an hour the last time they played, Srikanth showed he might well be returning to form. Although he lost the hour and two-minute long encounter, he displayed in patches some of the same sharpness of skill and speed that had made him one of the best players in the world. He started strongly, opening the match with a smart crosscourt, half-smash winner. He showed aggression on Chen's serve, and there was gutsiness on show too. He was down a game point in the first game but found a jump smash down line to Chen's forehand to level the game, followed by a sharp net shot to force an error from his opponent and then converted his first game point.
That game was only the second he'd taken off Chen in the six previous encounters. The first game was critical. Chen is a master of playing gruelling three-game matches and trailing after the first would have left the Indian facing a near insurmountable challenge. Indeed, even that cushion would not prove enough. Srikanth's endurance seemed to dip towards the end of the second and third games. It's clear that after a seven-month break, Srikanth's fitness still needs improvement. "First five points," the coach in his corner appeared to have told him at the break. Srikanth tried, but didn't seem to have that final push.
The unforced errors crept into his game even as Chen seemed to grow in confidence. Srikanth managed to find some momentum towards the end of the game, taking four consecutive points to go from 11-19 to 15 -19, but although that push made matters a little intriguing, Chen closed out the game eventually.
Despite the loss, Srikanth can only gain from the encounter. With the Denmark Open not affecting Olympic qualification in any way, the Indian has already said he would treat the competition as a learning experience. "I came here thinking this is an opportunity to understand where I am, so probably when the tournament season starts in January I can really analyse this tournament and train accordingly so I will be at a much better level," he told BWF.