Ahead of returning to action at the Denmark Open, the former world No.1 speaks to Tokyo 2020 about his goals, the lockdown and the OIympic Games.
Life changes so fast at the highest levels of sport that before athletes even realise, their laurels, form or momentum can be snatched away and the fight for the top crown becomes a struggle for survival between the crème de la crème.
After PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth is India’s biggest hope for a badminton medal at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and he is gunning for nothing less than gold.
Srikanth will be taking part in the upcoming Denmark Open, scheduled to be held in October, and he wants to have as many tournaments as possible under his belt before the Olympics to regain his 2017 form.
World No. 1, injuries and loss of form
In 2017, an imperious Srikanth smashed his way to four SuperSeries titles and World No. 1 ranking, outclassing opponents such as Olympic gold medallist LONG Chen, LEE Hyun-il, NISHIMOTO Kenta and even compatriot Sai Praneeth.
On 12 April 2018, Srikanth became only the second Indian male after Prakash Padukone in 1980 to be ranked number one in the world - a feat that has been achieved by only one other Indian in history (Saina Nehwal). However, his stay at the top was short-lived and he only managed to reach one BWF World Tour Final after his triumph at the French Open in October 2017.
"Badminton is a sport in which it’s really difficult to make a comeback from injuries and start winning titles instantly. I think I rushed myself back post injuries and didn’t give my body proper time to recover, which, naturally, affected my performances," Srikanth said while recalling his post-injury comeback period.
Does Srikanth have the self-belief to return to the zenith of the badminton world?
"I have been there already so I definitely know that I can do it again. I want to definitely regain the form I lost in 2017 and perhaps even better myself," he said.
Fitness, form and fighting injuries
Currently ranked world No.14, Srikanth believes playing at the Denmark Open will be the first step towards regaining the form he has lost.
"I was playing really well in 2017 and injuries aren’t something that you can predict in sport, and even if you come back well, it’s just not enough until you win tournaments on the trot. The last six months have given me enough time to work on my body and physically I am feeling well. It is just about playing a few tournaments and see where I stand," said Srikanth.
Even though the dip in form for Srikanth has been extremely worrying and his recent head-to-head record with top 10 players doesn’t make for good reading, the former world No.1 believes recovering from a knee injury can be extremely tough, given the joint's pivotal nature and how much it impacts the game.
"When it comes to a knee injury, it is really tough to make a comeback because it’s such an important part of your game and no matter what you do on court, your knee is constantly moving. Even when you are jumping, it means putting a lot of pressure on your knees because there is a need to be aggressive for winning points. I pushed myself way too early and I feel I did not give my knee enough time to recover," Srikanth explained.
Eat. Sleep. PUBG. Repeat
While the lockdown might have benefited Srikanth's knee recovery, it also gave him time to eat, sleep and play PUBG (PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds video game) on his phone.
The 27-year-old was back in Guntur before the lockdown was announced and stayed there until the end of July. Living with his parents and brother, Srikanth spent a significant time doing something not usually associated with a top athlete – eating and sleeping.
"There was a time when I would just wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to sleep, wake up, eat lunch and then go to sleep, following which I would wake up, eat dinner and go to sleep again," said Srikanth with a mild chuckle.
"I can actually sleep a lot; I don’t have to try to fall asleep. I can almost sleep at will."
What about gaining weight?
"Luckily for me, I don’t gain weight no matter how much I eat and that is somewhat of an advantage for me. Also, after a couple of weeks, I started working out to maintain my fitness," Srikanth said.
After more than four months at his home in Guntur, Srikanth returned to the court and started practising for the Denmark Open. The long break has helped Srikanth nurse his knee and he feels that a return to peak fitness is near.
Gunning for gold at Tokyo
The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are less than a year away and Srikanth is eager to get back on court and get some names under his belt. With a new breed of stars including MOMOTA Kento, Anders Antonsen, CHOU Tien Chen and Anthony Ginting now in the reckoning for gold at Tokyo, Srikanth feels that anyone in and around the top 10 will be difficult to face.
"The goal will be to win a gold at the Tokyo Olympics. I feel I would need to be at my best to win a medal and anyone in the top 32 will be tough to beat," he said.
Determined to regain his 2017 form and now fully fit, Srikanth will face a big test both in Denmark and over the coming months to get into his best shape before the Tokyo Olympics. The Denmark Open starts in Odense will run from 13 - 18 October.