If a farmer in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district hadn’t introduced his two sons to badminton 17 years ago, India may never have got what it got on Thursday: a world number one in badminton.
Farmer KVS Krishna’s younger son, Srikanth, was happy playing at the net with his brother, Nandagopal, slogging in the other part of the court. His coaches at the Vishakhapatnam academy, run by the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh, remembered Srikanth as a lazy player who lacked the killer spirit.
Then Dronacharya Pullela Gopichand spotted a singles player in him and moved him out of the comfort zone of playing doubles with his brother. At Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad, Srikanth was unsure of Gopi’s decision because having his brother around helped him play; without him, he may not play properly. But in hindsight, it has been the best decision of his life.
On April 12, when the Badminton World Federation (BWF) announced its rankings and confirmed Srikanth as world No. 1, the 25-year-old shuttler thanked his coach, ‘Gopi sir’, the first thing.
“Absolutely thrilled to be WORLD NO 1. I would like to thank my coach Gopi sir for believing in me…,” he tweeted.
Prakash Padukone was world number one in 1980, the year he won the All-England but this was before the computerized rankings were introduced. In the age of computerized rankings, he’s become the first Indian man to get to the top of the pile. Saina Nehwal has been ranked world number one in 2015 among women players.
From a lazy player without the killer spirit to world number one, it has been quite a journey for this Andhra man. He is now lauded for having a calm Roger Federer-like demeanour about him and stories about his dedication are stuff of folklore at the Gopichand academy.
Freelance journalist TS Sudhir, who has written ‘Saina Nehwal: An Inspirational Biography’, recently wrote about the time in 2016 when Srikanth had a hairline fracture in his right ankle and he was out of action for three months.
“But that did not keep him away from the court. Srikanth would sit on a bench with his right leg heavily strapped and fed shuttles by a coach at the Academy. This was his training regimen to work on his reflexes and eye-arm coordination. Attending team strategy sessions even when he was injured showed that he knew no life outside badminton,” Sudhir wrote for The Print.
Srikanth focus on the game took him to a career high less than six months later when he won the Indonesia, Australian, Denmark and French Super Series titles. He became only the fourth shuttler in the world to win four Super Series titles back to back.
For his first Super Series title, Srikanth beat Japan’s Kazumasa Sakai 21-11, 21-19 in the Indonesia Open Super Series. A week later, he beat world and Olympic champion Chen Long in straight games 22-20, 21-16 to claim the Australia Open Super Series. With these wins, he became the first Indian to claim back-to-back Super Series titles and subsequently broke into the top ten of the BWF men’s singles rankings for the first time in ten months.
In October 2017, Srikanth became the second Indian to win the Denmark Open – the first was Prakash Padukone. He also became the second Indias, after Saina Nehwal, and first Indian man to win three Super Series titles in a year. A week later when he won the French Open by beating Kento Nishimoto 21-14, 21-13, he moved from No 4 to a No 2 in the BWF men’s singles rankings.
TS Sudhir, in The Print article, also wrote about corporate unwilling to bet their money on Srikanth and PV Sindhu three years ago when sports management firm Baseline Ventures approached them. The corporate didn’t think much of the gawky Srikanth or badminton as a sport, Sudhir wrote.
Many of them returned to sign both players.
The team of Indian shuttlers – Srikanth, P.V. Sindhu, Saina Nehwal and H.S. Prannoy – is the perfect role model for the gen-next of Indian badminton talent. Until a few years ago, Indian badminton players lost the game in the mind when they faced a Chinese or an Indonesian player but this quartet has shown nothing comes between it and being the best.
No Indian man has won a medal at the Olympics so far – in the women’s Saina won bronze medal at 2012 London Olympics and PV Sindhu won a silver at 2016 Rio Olympics.
We hope Srikanth will end the wait in Tokyo two years later.