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Once dismissed as lazy, Kidambi Srikanth is now praised for Roger Federer-like calm

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The world number one rank ticked off his bucket list, Srikanth will have his eyes set on Olympics and World championship golds besides the All-England title.

It is business as usual at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. There is almost a ‘we knew it would happen’ kind of a response to Kidambi Srikanth scaling the world peak in the rankings. When the rankings come out on 12 April, the shuttler from Guntur in Andhra Pradesh will be the new world number one.

This will mean Srikanth will go where only one Indian shuttler before him has gone after rankings were computerised- Saina Nehwal in 2015. Prakash Padukone was world number one in 1980, the year he won the All-England.

Srikanth’s ascent to the top means it has been a long journey for this player, once dismissed by his coaches as lazy and lacking in killer spirit.

Success changes perspective. Today the 25-year-old is spoken of as having a calm Roger Federer-like demeanour about him.

Rewind to 17 years ago. If it was not for Srikanth’s agriculturist father K.V.S. Krishna’s decision to introduce his two sons, Nandagopal and Srikanth to badminton, the two could have been supervising farm labour growing paddy. Nandagopal, the elder of the two was the first to join the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh Academy in Visakhapatnam and Srikanth joined him a year later. Both played doubles on the court and lived at the hostel.

Then the admission to Gopichand Academy changed everything. Gopi spotted a singles player in Srikanth and moved him out of the comfort zone of covering half the court or playing only at the net. Initially, Srikanth was unsure what this change will do to his game. Having his brother around him helped. Nandagopal told Srikanth to just trust Gopichand’s judgement. In hindsight, it has been the best decision of his life.

It is a strange quirk of fate that when Srikanth reaches the pinnacle of world rankings, he is competing at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast. He has already been part of the team effort to win gold, defeating the legendary Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia in the final.

It is a huge turnaround from the Glasgow edition four years ago. A fortnight before the Commonwealth Games, Srikanth collapsed in the washroom at the Gopichand Academy. He had contracted a bug for meningitis and was hospitalised for over a week for curing brain fever. He travelled to Glasgow but did not set the court on fire. Down under in Queensland, Srikanth has just given a tutorial on what hard work and grit can achieve.

Srikanth’s journey has had a fair share of breakdowns thanks to injuries and illnesses. The most severe of them came in 2016 when a hairline fracture in his right ankle meant he was out of action for three months. But that did not keep him away from the court. Srikanth would sit on a bench with his right leg heavily strapped and fed shuttles by a coach at the Academy. This was his training regimen to work on his reflexes and eye-arm coordination. Attending team strategy sessions even when he was injured showed that he knew no life outside badminton.

It is a commentary on his focus that less than six months later, Srikanth had figured in two back-to-back finals in Singapore and Indonesia. While he lost to fellow Indian Sai Praneeth in Singapore in April 2017 in the first all-Indian final in a Super Series event, Jakarta saw Srikanth winning the title. The year also saw him winning the Australian, Denmark and French Super Series titles, becoming only the fourth shuttler in the world to win four Super Series titles in a year.

But building Brand Srikanth was not easy. Three years back, when sports management firm Baseline Ventures approached corporates for endorsements for Srikanth and P.V. Sindhu, the response was less than encouraging. Corporates, looking for immediate and Virat Kohli-esque returns on their investment did not think much of the gawky Srikanth or badminton as a sport.

Even in the run-up to the Rio Olympics in 2016, corporates were reluctant to put in money on Srikanth and Sindhu, arguing they will be just a 7-day wonder. Their feats in the last two years are a commentary on the lack of awareness among industrial houses. Of course, many of them, having eaten humble pie, returned to sign on both players.

What will Srikanth’s ascent to the top mean for Indian badminton?

As a top-notch global athlete, Srikanth along with P.V. Sindhu, Saina Nehwal and H.S. Prannoy, is the perfect role model for the gen-next of Indian badminton talent. And unlike the generation of players before them, many of who lost the game in the mind when facing a Chinese or Indonesian player, this group has shown Indian talent can tame the world.

But while the top rank will be a huge achievement, Srikanth knows that Thursday is just a week away. In terms of the competition on the circuit, the rank will remain just a number. There is little to choose between the top ten players in the world and any of them can beat the other on their day. The world number one rank ticked off his bucket list, Srikanth will have his eyes set on Olympics and World championship golds besides the All-England title.

T.S. Sudhir is a freelance journalist and commentator who writes on the southern states. He is the author of the book titled “Saina Nehwal: An Inspirational Biography”.

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