Is the sun finally shining on Kidambi Srikanth?

Can Kidambi Srikanth build on his PBL form to be in peak confidence by the time the Rio Olympics arrives?

The fistpumps and the determination are back for the India No. 1 Kidambi Srikanth
The fistpumps and the determination are back for the India No. 1 Kidambi Srikanth

Every player hopes that the New Year washes away the bitter memories of the past season and helps to start the new one with a bang. That just might be a reality now for India’s No. 1 men’s singles badminton player Kidambi Srikanth.

With the turn of the year, the World No. 9 now has two big, morale-boosting wins at the 2016 Premier Badminton League (PBL) – one over his good friend HS Prannoy and the other over former World No. 1 Lee Chong Wei. The latter would go a long way in re-inforcing Srikanth’s self-belief and confidence as this is his first ever win of any kind over the two-time Olympic silver medallist. And to think that the Malaysian was on a 15-match winning streak, makes this triumph even more. satisfying for the Indian.

This is a rejuvenated version of the 22-year-old Bengaluru Topguns shuttler who is bubbling with zeal and enthusiasm. This is the Srikanth who took the world by storm when he toppled Lin Dan at the China Open Superseries Premier in 2014.

He is once again the fearless one, who doesn’t stop at anything! There is the quiet determination, the frequent fistpumps, the piercing stare that can send a chill down his opponents’ spine! This is the Srikanth that the Indian fans had waited to see ever since he stole their hearts by winning the India Open Superseries back in March last year.

Unfortunately, the months following that stupendous success were mired in a slump as the Guntur boy struggled with every facet of his game. His famous speed and footwork were sorely missing as he looked clueless even against so many rivals much lower-ranked than him.

There is such an inextricable connection between a player’s conviction and his performance on the court. Consider the woes of the 14-time Grand Slam tennis champion Rafael Nadal’s 2015 season. The Spaniard, who self-admitted to dealing with mental demons, found it hard to connect the ball on the court and his famed forehands went for a toss for much of the season.

It took a long time before he could finally conquer his troubles of the mind and show glimpses of the player that he is known to be. Time and patience are requisites to tide over such situations.

Srikanth’s catastrophic season post his India Open win mirrors so much of Nadal’s mental fragilities from last year. Thrust into the limelight, the shy and unassuming shuttler found it a tedious task to deal with the burden of expectations. Success at an early age has its pitfalls too.

The repeated setbacks robbed him of a vital weapon – his mental fortitude – and he would crumble under the slightest of pressure. Srikanth simply became a pale shadow of himself, making as many as nine pre-quarter-final exits. The world ranking that had reached a career-high of No. 3 in August was down six places to No. 9 as he continued to repeatedly falter after building up big leads.

It was only at the fag end of the year in December that Srikanth could finally show signs of finding his feet on the court again. At the Indonesian Masters, he made it to the summit clash – his first final on the Tour after more than eight months!

It was the first time since March that the youngster had managed to string together five back-to-back wins. The World Superseries Finals at Dubai came too early for the Pullela Gopichand ward, who had just about started his resurgence. He wasn’t yet ready to take on the top guns and it was evident.

The diligent Srikanth plunged into hard work for the next three weeks, never letting his wobbly performance at the Superseries Finals overshadow his efforts. The Indonesian Masters had brought him back the hunger that was so lacking for a long time. Most importantly, it had re-ignited his love and passion for the game again.

The enjoyment factor seems to be back

At the PBL, Srikanth is once again enjoying his time on the court and his results are speaking for him. His attacking instincts are full on display just like before. Using every inch of the court, he is giving a thorough exhibition of his speed and tenacity. The smashes are regularly finding their mark and the angles and deft touches are able to outfox his rivals again.

Srikanth is back to being a thinking player and is able to readily spot the areas of his game where he needs to change. After initially floundering against Lee Chong Wei at the PBL, Srikanth found a way to make his game work, which he admitted later: “I played five different strokes, made five different mistakes. And then I changed.”

It is this positivity that bodes well for his 2016 season, the start of which is crucial for his Olympic medal chances. The PBL has definitely served its purpose as far as Srikanth is concerned, who is flourishing with the extra bit of match practice ahead of the new season.

It now remains to be seen if this mature version of Srikanth can take this forward and build on this to be in peak form by the time the Rio Olympics arrives in August. And that is something the countless Indian badminton aficionados will be waiting to watch with bated breath.