A very different looking Kidambi Srikanth turned up for the Denmark 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 seemed to have come out of the pandemic-enforced hibernation having undergone a makeover.
“It’s nothing at all,” he said on the phone, laughing. “This is because of the pandemic. I did not cut my hair for four-five months and started practicing like this. Then I thought it’s just one tournament and I’ll play with this look.”
It has been a long wait for Srikanth to step back on the courts. The last time he played before the $750,000 event in Denmark was at the All England in March, where he lost in the opening round.
“It felt really nice to play a tournament after such a long time because I have also been training since August. If you’re training you really want to play tournaments. If there are no tournaments you can’t really push yourself,” said Srikanth, who is currently ranked world No.14.
Though there was an element of fear in traveling and playing during a pandemic, Srikanth said all the players he spoke to in Denmark were happy to be back in action.
On court, Srikanth was quick to make his presence felt, zooming into the quarters with dominating wins before losing to the world No. 2, Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen.
“I felt really nice playing. I was very comfortable, moving really well and enjoyed myself. There will always be some areas to work on, but there is time for the next tournament, there’s time to work on them,” he said.
For Srikanth, getting back into the competitive mode was essential--“I was getting better with the matches. I wasn’t really very fluid initially but after I played the first round I moved and played little better in the second and improved further in the next match. I was lacking match practice. At least I played this tournament so I can definitely do better in the next ones.”
Before the pandemic hit, Srikanth was in the middle of a poor season, with seven losses in 12 outings this year, including three back-to-back first rounds defeats in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in January. The immediate future looked bleak as well, with the end of the Olympic qualification period approaching and Srikanth finding himself outside the Race to Tokyo rankings before the pandemic led to the suspension of the season.
Former coach Mulyo Handoyo, who guided the legendary Taufik Hidayat to the 2004 Athens Olympics gold, was of the opinion that Srikanth needed a new coach to give him some direction; “I think he’s lacking motivation,” the Indonesian had said then.
It was under Handoyo, who is now chief coach of Singapore, that Srikanth reached five Superseries finals in 2017, winning four and catapulting to the top in the world rankings. Since Handoyo’s departure later that year, Srikanth has managed to reach only two finals—2018 Commonwealth Games and 2019 India Open, losing both.
“What Mulyo said is true maybe,” Srikanth said, “but I never thought from this angle that I need a new coach. For me it was all about working harder, thinking what else I can do. Mulyo has a lot of experience, has seen so many players, played World and Olympic champions, so he can see that.”
This year, Srikanth finally got a new coach, Indonesia’s Agus Dwi Santoso, who joined the national setup in March but only started training in August because of the lockdown. Santoso will assist Gopichand till at least the Tokyo Olympics.
“Agus has so much experience. I feel really good training with him. It has been only a couple of months since we started but I really like his approach which is a little bit more aggressive which suits my game style. The Indonesian training style is about moving faster, being more attacking to catch the opponent off guard—that has really helped me,” said Srikanth. “He also travelled with me to Denmark, saw my matches and knows what areas to work on now. It’s all thanks to his training I was able to move freely and play more aggressively. Let’s give it some time, another five-six months for any change to happen. It’s only been one tournament. Let’s play another four-five and understand each other better.”
Srikanth will have to be quick and aggressive if he needs to make it to the Olympics. With the qualification process set to restart next year, the Indian currently languishes at No.22 in the Race to Tokyo rankings. Only a top-16 finish by the cut-off date (week 17 of 2021) will guarantee him a berth in Tokyo. But Srikanth isn’t too worried.
“If I’m doing well, if I play at my best, if I’m winning tournaments, I don’t really have to think so much about qualifying. If I win a couple of tournaments I’ll definitely qualify for the Olympics,” he said.