Hours after an edgy second-round match against Chinese upstart Li Shi Feng at the BWF World Championships in Huelva earlier this week, Kidambi Srikanth jumped out of a plane and parachuted into an island. His two closest friends from school stayed up well past midnight back in Hyderabad to join him in the multiplayer battleground fight. BGMI (or PUBG) sessions are their way of not asking India's top men's singles player - and now the country's first-ever men's Worlds silver medalist - how his matches went, but to banter him into a release of its emotions. They join him as he air-drops into combat zones and lets fly sniper rifle headshots like he rips his smashes. These gaming sessions are often Srikanth's preferred choice of mental recovery from on-court duels. Or even from a rotten clutch of recent years.
Four Super Series wins in 2017, a seven-day stay as world No. 1 in April 2018, and somehow, inexplicably, failing to qualify for the Olympics this year. Srikanth almost didn't make it to the World Championships either. His Spain visa didn't come through until three days before the tournament. A draw that shed its big names early, and was missing on a whole roster of Indonesians, was a god-send. Srikanth wheeled through the rounds ducking seeds and made the final without having faced any of them. He was tested by Li and battled early nerves and errors against fellow Indian Lakshya Sen in the semifinals.
Srikanth has regained his confidence in bits and pieces over months, through a battery of tournaments. "When he played (Kento) Momota at the Denmark Open (in October), it looked like he was trying something out," former Commonwealth Games champion Parupalli Kashyap says, "He was fearing his fitness levels I felt, or was perhaps told to slow down the rallies and opt for a more patient game. He wasn't so good at it. When we spoke later, I told him my opinion that he should play to his strength and focus on attack. He's more consistent in the high-risk shots and the percentage of points he can score off them is a lot higher than most players in the world. He heard me out, didn't say much, just nodded."
At the following week's French Open, Srikanth dragged the Japanese into a scrap. He still lost, but this time it wasn't a timid show. Kashyap recalls him being "very upset" at flubbing a chance. That match was one of the earliest glimpses of Srikanth rebuilding his hunger and fight post a missed Olympics. The Hylo Open semifinal in early November offered the next snapshot in the montage - Srikanth vs. reigning All England champion Lee Zii Jia. Pullela Gopichand believes that over recent months, particularly this week, Srikanth has looked sharper in the points. "Confidence plays a huge part," he says, "With one or two wins, suddenly everything changes. The body language becomes different. That you stay in the striking zone and close out matches then becomes really important."
To stand a chance in the fight, alongwith his attack some work has also been put in on his body movements and control. Kiran Challagundla, his long-time physio from the Gopichand academy, began overseeing Srikanth's physical programs from July this year after being away since 2018. He traveled to be beside him for the World Championships. "The idea has been for him to express his explosiveness but through controlled movements. It's what we've been working on," says Kiran.
Since the Sudirman Cup in September till his World Championships final against Loh Kean Yew on Sunday, Srikanth played 27 matches over nine competitions. His game - tight spinning net shots, full-blooded leaps into the air for smashes, the clever disguise in his drops that float short of his opponent, is also given to errors. Like the ones he was culpable of against Loh on his smashes on both wings and lifts.
Gopichand believes there's still a lot of unfinished work for Srikanth when it comes to his ability to last long matches against retrieving opponents through long-drawn rallies. His fitness levels are currently not at its best. "Your attack has to be good enough to finish the game and you have to consistently keep putting shuttles back on court. Also getting new weapons is not a bad idea. Or else once the surprise element is gone, people have you all figured out. A typical example is Lin Dan, an attacking aggressive player who turned into a defensive, rally player towards the end of his career. So players have worked on themselves, changed their attitudes and basic game styles to come back, stay longer and perform for a greater period of time. For Srikanth, I think just the way he manages his fitness is crucial, and improving it by even 10 per cent will take him a notch higher."
But to even get here - a World Championship weekend and a silver medal in a largely barren draw, pulling himself out of the months of self-doubt and first-round exits, Srikanth has had to dig deep.
Part of the reason which made the rut needlessly long, Kashyap believes, is because of his usually unquestioning approach toward coaches. "He's the kind of guy who completely trusts the coach he's assigned and follows their programs. Sometimes when you're a top player you have to look out for yourself. You may find out in a couple of events that either it's not working well or you have to ask for a few changes. A world number one falling out of the top 20 and not qualifying for the Olympics can be quite shocking and unexpected. No one would have even made a wild guess in 2017. I feel he perhaps wasn't as proactive in addressing the issues he was facing. I'm just happy to see what he did this week."
Srikanth's older sibling Nandagopal, whom he followed into the sport, talks of the times not too long ago when his brother's social media mentions were full of angry comments over his poor run of performances. "I don't think Srikanth reads them, but as a brother I tend to. No one knows the struggles he's been through. He's fought them alone. He doesn't express really. Even if either I or our parents lose our cool over anything, he'll just smile or will quietly walk away. Later, once we've cooled down, he comes over and explains why he chose to remain silent then."
Srikanth's parents, in fact, never watch his matches. Even this week, they chose not to turn on the TV for live action. "After his match against Lakshya Sen, when I told my mother that he'd made the final, she just smiled but she had tears," Nandagopal says, "It's the first time I saw her cry over anything to do with Srikanth's badminton. Over the past couple of years, she's had to face questions from those around us over whether his career was over and if he'd ever win anything at a major event."
An introvert who buries himself in survival video games and road trips with his close band of equally reclusive friends, Srikanth is given to economy of expression and emotion even in his lowest phases. Gaming then turns into a vent. His closest friends, three in number - two of them based in Hyderabad, the fourth in Ohio, with whom he goes back a long way - from sharing benches in Class 7 at the KLP public school in Guntur, have had his back. "All four of us are the kind of guys who don't bare our emotions," says Vinyas, a chartered accountant by profession and one of the three friends, "Gaming is our outlet. When he's playing tournaments and if we know Srikanth has had a tough match and needs to de-stress, we set up a game no matter which part of the world he's in." Even if it's odd hours and time zones apart, they set up alarms and wake up for a game.
"He's usually alone after a match, maybe with all sorts of thoughts in his head and a game can help him de-stress. We haven't played since the pre-quarterfinal match because we realized the matches could get tougher and he needed more time for recovery. Usually, we don't speak about badminton but during these games, we tease him if he slackens, and pull his leg over something stupid he did on court, he too jokes about it then and it's out of his system. The confidence he had this week, I haven't seen it in a while. It's been a long wait to watch him play the way he did."