A very different Kidambi Srikanth showed up at the Danish Open last month in Odense. Sporting a full beard and long hair held back by a bandana, the 27-year-old former world No.1 appeared to have emerged from hibernation imposed by the pandemic after undergoing a makeover.
“It’s nothing at all,” he said over the phone, laughing. “It’s because of the pandemic. I didn’t cut my hair for four to five months and started practicing like this. Then I thought it was just a tournament and I will play with this look.
It took a long time for Srikanth to retire to the courts. The last time he played before the $ 750,000 event in Denmark was at All England in March, where he lost in the first round.
“It was really nice to play a tournament after so long because I have been training since August as well. If you are training you really want to play tournaments. If there are no tournaments you can’t really push yourself, ”said Srikanth, who is currently ranked No.14 in the world.
While there was an element of fear in traveling and playing during a pandemic, Srikanth said all players he spoke to in Denmark were happy to be back in action.
On the court, Srikanth was quick to make his presence felt, zooming into the quarters with dominating wins before losing to world No.2 Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei.
“I felt really good playing. I was very comfortable, I moved very well and I had fun. There will always be areas to work on, but there is time for the next tournament, there is time to work on it, ”he said.
For Srikanth, getting back into competitive mode was essential – “I got better with the games. I wasn’t really that smooth at the start, but after playing the first round I moved and played a little better in the second and improved in the next game. I lacked match practice. At least I played in this tournament, so I can definitely do better in the next ones.
Before the pandemic hit, Srikanth was in the middle of a bad season, with seven losses in 12 outings this year, including three consecutive first-round losses to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in January. The immediate future also looked bleak, with the end of the Olympic qualifying period approaching and Srikanth finding himself outside the Race to Tokyo rankings before the pandemic resulted in the suspension of the season.
Former coach Mulyo Handoyo, who guided legendary Taufik Hidayat to gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, believed Srikanth needed a new coach to give him direction; “I think he lacks motivation,” said the Indonesian.
It was under Handoyo, who is now Singapore’s head coach, that Srikanth reached five Superseries finals in 2017, winning four and propelling himself to the top of the world rankings. Since Handoyo’s departure later that year, Srikanth has only managed to reach two finals: the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2019 Indian Open, losing both.
“What Mulyo said might be true,” said Srikanth, “but I never thought from that perspective that I needed a new coach. For me, it was about working harder, thinking about what else I could do. Mulyo has a lot of experience, has seen so many players, played world and Olympic champions, so he can see it.
This year, Srikanth finally got a new coach, Indonesian Agus Dwi Santoso, who joined the national setup in March but only started training in August due to the lockdown. Santoso will assist Gopichand at least until the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“Agus has so much experience. I feel really good training with him. It’s only been a few months since we started but I really like his approach which is a little more aggressive which suits my style of play. The Indonesian style of training is to go faster, to be more offensive to take the lead. ‘off guard – that really helped me,’ said Srikanth. “He’s also traveled with me to Denmark, seen my games and knows what areas to work on now. It was thanks to his training that I was able to move freely and play more aggressively. Let’s give it a little time, another five to six months for any changes to happen. It’s just a tournament. Let’s play four-five more and we’ll understand better.
Srikanth will need to be quick and aggressive if he is to make it to the Olympics. While the qualification process is expected to restart next year, the Indian is currently languishing in 22nd place in the Race to Tokyo standings. Only a finish in the top 16 by the deadline (week 17 of 2021) will guarantee him a place in Tokyo. But Srikanth isn’t too worried.
“If I’m fine, if I’m playing at my best, if I win tournaments, I don’t really have to think about qualifying. If I win a few tournaments, I will definitely qualify for the Olympics, ”he said.