Kidambi Srikanth explodes, then implodes


The enigma of Kidambi Srikanth on some truly boggling days like Wednesday extends to his opponent, the irrepressible Viktor Axelsen, not knowing how he wound up beating the talented Indian. Srikanth’s winners are as spectacular as his errors end up being silly. No one— least of all him– knows how he works up a frenzy of some smoothly woven points to go 14-5 up in the second set. And then proceeds to fritter it all away in a pool of errors. A full half a dozen ones at the net.

Why, you might ask, does India’s finest net practitioner known for his laser net proficiency, lose all accuracy, and spray the shuttle like a magnetic compass at Bermuda triangle? In going down 21-14, 21-19 to Axelsen in the opening round of the India Open Super 750, there were more of the same question that brightens and blights his mercurial career.

One argument is Srikanth gets into a zone where he collects winners in a dizzying run of points, and then after a sizeable lead is built, at some juncture he becomes acutely conscious of how well he’s been playing, and then it all goes downhill, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like he can’t believe how well he’s been playing. Middling confidence levels, confused self-assessments and brimming, overflowing talent all add up to those tap-outs and smash-outs. And one leads to the next and then many more. Srikanth isn’t sure why inaccuracy floods his strokes at the worst, inopportune moments.

Positive start

On Wednesday, and unlike most days, the 29-year-old started positively, never mind the first set score that saw Axelsen finally powering through. It started with the first point—a nice, deep cross smash–that must’ve jolted Axelsen, who had arrived from hot, humid Kuala Lumpur into this bone-chilling frigid zone that Delhi is. For whatever reasons, there was a drift in the KD Jadhav Hall, but not enough to dictate dominance of a set.

Srikanth would keep pace till 5-5, with a lot more verve in his court bearing than there usually tends to be. But the accuracy at the net was missing even then at 12-16, as he relied on acceleration of attack. It is that breakneck speed that brings him both the winners and errors, and though he dished out some fancy stroke-play at 14-19, there were no returns on all the artistry, as he lagged 21-14 to go a set down.

It was at 8-3 in the second – when he had hit the purple patch – that Srikanth won one of the finest points. Primed at the net, he spun the shuttle that fluttered like Gryffindor’s Golden Snitch and fell short, wrong-footing Axelsen who barely reached it. Then came two slashing crisp smashes as Srikanth looked well on way to pushing a decider. And then just like that, he didn’t.

Error-spree

The errors swarmed in like the Delhi cold pierces into bones. At 12-4 came one of the last magical winners – he did a 360-swivel to parry off a whipped smash, and then five strokes later had the winner. Then gravity struck: the errors came fast and steady. Whether it was finishing nerves or Axelsen getting his act together will never be known, but Srikanth just couldn’t catch a break.

An ace cross smash at 17-15 and then a net follow-up winner at 19-18 served to give hope and kill it in quick succession. But Axelsen couldn’t believe his luck – given how well his opponent had been dominating just moments ago.

“I still can’t believe I managed to win that match. I didn’t feel at all good in the second game, Srikanth stepped up and suddenly he locked me in. Yeah, really surprising. However, I am really happy that I managed to win in straight games. So, it’s not easy to come from a hot humid country (Malaysia) to a rather cold New Delhi. I am trying to adapt in the best way possible,” he would say.

Physically, the winner from Malaysia hadn’t quite recovered. “Long travel, five and half hours. But now I have some more hours tomorrow, so I am trying to recover in the best way possible,” he’d say, as the crowd had no compunctions cheering the home player against him. “I am only happy to see so many badminton fans in the stands, it was a great atmosphere. Of course they support their countryman. I was just very happy to pull out the win today,” he added.


Gleaning positives

Srikanth was typically confounded with how it had all puddled up, but took the positives. “I played well overall but couldn’t finish a few points. Even in the first game, I had few tap-outs and smash-outs. In the second game as well, at 18-19, it touched the net and went out. It was a good match, but I made too many mistakes. A lot of positives to take,” he said.

Their last meeting had been a win for Srikanth. “So many things have happened (since 2019). At this point, I am in a good position, many things have gone my way since we last played in 2019. I am just proud of how I am. The Malaysia Open was a big big win for me and I am just trying to do the best I can every single day and I was really happy to win my first round today,” Axelsen added.

Srikanth knows he has a lot of work to do. “I went in thinking I can win, you know. But I think after 14/15 in the second set, it was just about being there till the end, but I made too many mistakes and then gave him the opportunity to come back.”

He admitted the errors – a problem for many years – ate into his chances to win and he hadn’t applied himself in the end. “I think it’s really important at the moment to cut down the errors. But again, if it’s regarding the strategy then I should sit with my coaches and think, understand what went wrong. I was really doing exceptionally well till a point in the second set. It was just about finishing the game, that’s it.”

The ‘that’s’ and the ‘it’ ended in fritters. “I played really well till a point in the second set and gave him too many easy points after that,” he repeated.





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