KIDAMBI SRIKANTH IS in an unchartered territory. Apart from a few other Indian personalities unassociated with cricket—so few that you can perhaps count them on your fingertips—Srikanth, just 25 years old, now finds himself at the very top of his sport.
Just a week after beating an Olympic great— Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei— in straight games, and helping the Indian team win the Commonwealth Games mixed team gold, Srikanth has now become India’s first men’s singles world No 1 in the modern era. This happened when Srikanth displaced the Danish player Viktor Axelsen in the Badminton World Federation’s latest rankings, with 76,895 points.
You expect such feats in a sport like cricket in India. Every few generations, you expect the rise of cricketers like Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar or Virat Kohli, people considered to be the best in their game, purely because of the intense focus and resources trained on cricket. It is something else, though, when someone else emerges from another sport to top its global rankings. Before him, only Saina Nehwal and Prakash Padukone achieved these feats—the latter managing to do it in 1980, before a computerised ranking system was introduced.
Srikanth’s rise in fact has been meteoric, from an unknown player ranked 240 back in 2012 to World No 1 now. Early in his life, there was little that marked him for such success. Unlike, for instance, someone like PV Sindhu, born to professional volleyball players, who started training under P Gopichand at the age of eight, Srikanth was born to a family of farmers in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. He picked up the game simply because his elder brother played. Not particularly great at studies, Srikanth would take part in the occasional tournament. Many of his earlier coaches and acquaintances often speak—somewhat incredulously, given his current success —of how unfocused and lazy he used to be. He liked playing, but did not enjoy training and monitoring his diet. He participated in everything—singles, doubles and mixed doubles—so that he could escape the need to train hard. His parents eventually sent him to Hyderabad and enrolled him at Gopichand’s academy, because it appeared the most convenient of choices. His elder brother had moved to the academy a few years ago.
When he arrived at the academy, a fresh-faced somewhat lazy 15-year-old, he was unsure of what he was going to do with his life. Gopichand put him under the pump. His cellphone was taken away, his outings were curtailed, he was made to consume non-vegetarian food, something he didn’t do before, for more protein, and his trainings were made more rigorous. He would very often be the first at the court, sharp at 4 am. His entire life in the academy was made to revolve around badminton.
Many expected Srikanth to become World No 1 when he won four Superseries titles last season. Only three other players have managed this feat: the top Chinese players Lin Dan and Chen Long, and the Malaysian Lee Chong Wei, each of them former chart toppers. But an injury meant he could not achieve it last year.
Along with PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal, he is the most famous of Gopichand’s students. Perhaps he may very well turn out to be the best. He has certainly achieved more than his coach ever had. According to Gopichand, Srikanth can still vastly improve his game, especially on slower surfaces. It is a fearful thought. But if there is one person who can spot it, it is perhaps Gopichand. Srikanth is just 25 years old. And it is possible that he may soon join the league of India’s most celebrated sportspersons.