Nerves in knots, one point away. Kidambi Srikanth pushed himself to the back of the court, and flung a drop-shot. Lakshya Sen collected it near his chest with a dithering backhand which disappeared into the net. He bent over in instant regret, hands on knees. Srikanth sank into the court, fell flat on his back, arms spread out, and limbs wrung dry, joyous relief flooding him. Both players scrambled back up on their feet and met at the net in a sweaty, melting hug. Faces turned away from one another, resting on each other's shoulders, they broke into the broadest smiles.
It was a lovely moment after what had been a 69-minute street-fight. The youngling stretching the senior. The affection between them is sincere, not built for cameras. Both go back with medals. Lakshya, a bronze for his troubles, PV Sindhu in 2013 the only other debutant Indian medalist at a Worlds. Srikanth, who has made his first final in over four years, at least a silver. The first ever in the history of Indian men's singles. He runs into breakout star Loh Kean Yew in the Worlds final on Sunday. The Singaporean is his country's first Worlds medalist and has already beaten the two tallest names in current men's singles' - Viktor Axelsen and Kento Momota.
On Saturday, Srikanth's name in bling-y gold letters at the back of his shirt caught light early in the semifinals. Commentator Gillian Clarke wondered aloud if the 28 year-old was being unreserved in his intent for the weekend.
Nerves clattering, tugging at Srikanth's wrists. A net tumble, the kind he can sleepwalk to execution on a regular match day, froze at the top of the tape, a moment of indecision later it trickled back down to his side of the court. Game 1, 6-5. Srikanth shook his head in disbelief. He couldn't believe his luck. Lakshya responded by uncorking a disguised drop to step up on even terms. The nerves were twisting Srikanth's insides and his arms were acting on cue. Two returns went wide and long on the sideline and baseline. He muttered to himself in visible anguish.
Lakshya's speedy carousel of movements -- plucking shuttles from the forecourt, scrambling the diagonal to his deep forehand corner, shaping to receive a straight smash, returning to the net in a quick lunge -- can be particularly irksome for players like Srikanth who meld style with power. The resolute retrieves can test the faith in their own trusted shots. Lakshya piled it on, attacking purposefully at the net and slinging cross-court winners on Srikanth's forehand side. The game had begun to slip away for the senior.
Srikanth thwacked a regulation lift from Lakshya at the net for a kill, overcooked it and found the shuttle trapped in the mesh. 17-17. He dropped to a squat on the forecourt, hands on his head in disbelief at a flubbed chance. It's the sort of error that can coil around the mind and asphyxiate. Lakshya took the first game 21-17.
The coaches' corners were empty. No Park Tae Sang with jazz hands and dancing pupils playing every point with Srikanth. Or Lakshya's father DK Sen with his assured claps. They'd gone with the genteel convention of not scheming against a compatriot. Both players were on their own. Self-talk alone.
Srikanth and Lakshya had followed their older siblings into the sport and the first time they met on court was in the semifinals of 2017 senior Nationals in Nagpur. It was the year Srikanth was on a blitzkrieg of Super Series wins. Before that day, the former world junior No 1 had only watched Srikanth on TV.
Following Lakshya's three-game thriller of a medal confirmation on Friday, Sen Sr. had called up his wife back in India and their closest friends who are in touch with the young player. The brief was terse yet simple: hold off on the congratulatory messages. The 20 year-old had to be stirred into a hungry pursuit of a job half done.
Through the second and third games, Srikanth's routine often was about luring the tiring youngster to the net, pushing him to the forehand deep pocket, splicing open the court and bolting a smash down the middle. It nudged him to a catch-up a 6-8 scenario in the second game. His jump smashes -- leaping heavenward, hanging in the air, both feet off the ground, revving his shoulder blades on power and sending the shuttle crashing steep onto the court-- were picking up points as were the lengthening rallies. He won the game 21-14.
By the third, Lakshya's right knee taping was coming undone as was the zip in his limbs. Srikanth too was tottering, sweeping his palm against his sweaty forehead and running on fumes. But he was the braver, hungrier one on court, pelting smashes, his pushes to the back of the court obediently kissing the line, and the audacious disguised drops finding no answers. His 20 year-old opponent careened around, pulling off outrageous retrieves from imbalanced positions and bouncing off the court after full-length dives. But he was panting, running out of fuel. Then the drop shot that made it 21-17.
Srikanth's attack, when not caught in the tangled web of a wavering mind, can be among the best in the world. A small group of vocal supporters in the stands in Huelva chanted his name through the match and he was all ears as he would reveal later, dipping into his deepest reserves. He just hung in for the next point. Waiting, hoping, believing that his time would come.
It has now. A World Championships final awaits.