Back in 2014, 21-year-old Srikanth Kidambi bolted into the limelight by doing something that most of the Badminton world – and India – thought to be impossible. No, it wasn’t just becoming the first Indian male shuttler to win the China Open Super Series title. It was about whom he defeated – two-time Olympic Champion and five-time World Champion Lin Dan. Lithe, tattooed and tall, Dan has that blockbuster Hollywood-villain look about him, a flawed ultra-genius who wins only if he feels like winning. That day, however, over two stunning sets, Dan wanted to win. He hadn’t reached the final to lose. He had stopped underestimating his new opponent after losing the first set 21-19. He felt like winning, and he couldn’t for once. He lost the second set 21-17. In that moment, an Indian kid – another Pullela Gopichand Academy product – had risen over a week far more than most of his contemporaries had in their entire careers. In stature. In confidence. In belief.
Many remembered him on that day as the boy who had defeated Parupalli Kashyap a year ago in the All India Senior National Championships. A year after that, he found himself in the elite BWF Super Series Masters Finals – where only the top world players of the year are invited to participate in a round-robin format, much like the World Tour Finals for tennis.
In 2015, Kidambi proved that he wasn’t a flash in the pan. He won the Swiss Open Grand Prix title and the India Open Super Series title by defeating top players, and rose to third in the world rankings. No Indian man had ever been ranked higher. Titles had often been won, but no one had sustained a consistent level of excellence by reaching the last four of most tournaments the way Kidambi did that year.
In 2016, he fell to 11 in the rankings, but continued to win titles. By the time the Rio Olympics came around, there were great expectations of him winning a rare medal for India. He reached the quarterfinals and played perhaps the toughest match of his career – again. It was Lin Dan. Dan demolished him in the first set 6-21, before Kidambi struck back with a ruthless 21-11. The third set was one for the ages. Dan showed his big-match temperament in the end and stole it 21-18 after trailing at one point. Kidambi fell one game short of winning a bronze medal. It broke his heart, but strengthened his mind.
Unfortunately, his body gave way soon after. He injured his ankle at the Japan Open, and was forced to step away from the game for a while. He watched, but recuperated on the sidelines, as he fell out of the top 20. This made his comeback in 2017 even sweeter. He reached the final of the Singapore Super Series, creating history because he was playing fellow Indian Sai Praneeth for the title. He lost the match, but got what he needed out of the tournament – the confidence that he was back to the level he needed to be at.
On Sunday, while the Indian cricket team was collapsing against rivals Pakistan in the Champions Trophy, Srikanth Kidambi created his kind of history. He reached his second consecutive Super Series final, and became the first Indian to win the trio of Super Series, Super Series Premier and Grand Prix Gold. He defeated Japan’s Kazumasa Sakai in the final of the Indonesian Super Series Premier Men’s Singles title. He had defeated World no. 1 Son Wan Ho in the semifinals by saving a match point. Ranked 22 at the beginning, he finished the tournament by jumping to second – his highest ever ranking.
Kidambi heads to the Australian Open as the best Indian player – male or female – in the world right now. Since his injury, much like champions Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, he has become even more prolific, and seems to have discovered his mojo at the prime stage of his young career. He is only 24, and things are only just starting for him.