And the rest was history? Not quite. Even that, so the story goes, took some work. Pullela Gopichand wasn’t too sure of the youngster’s potential, happy as the coach was with older sibling Nandagopal’s early progress at his academy. An angry father had a hard time convincing Gopichand to give in and take his younger son under his wing as well.
Then, as they say, the rest was history. Says who? Like most success stories, Srikanth’s story has its share of determination and hard work. Some critical decisions and confidence also played a role in designing a good, successful course. And, of course, that life-changing decision to abandon the fellowship-promoting ethos of doubles’ burden-sharing for the lonely pursuit that is singles badminton.
On Sunday, Kidambi Nammalwar Srikanth comes full circle, victory or defeat, despair or triumph.
Born into an agricultural family, Srikanth followed in the footsteps of his brother Nandagopal and took up badminton at a young age. The brothers initially trained with trainer Sudhakar Reddy in Hyderabad before parents thought it was time for an upgrade. Nandgopal was accepted into the Gopichand Academy, but the coach found the younger son acceptable.
“His father asked me to consider his younger son as he was quite mischievous. That’s how Srikanth came to the academy,” Gopichand tells TOI, adding that he was a happy guy who stashed the main ingredients for hunger and focus and left them in some drawer at home.
“He used to be happy with the doubles results he got. Then I gave him some targets and tightened him up. He soon became a diligent player,” Gopi recalls.
Not many today remember that Srikanth started out as a doubles player, even winning silver in mixed doubles and bronze in men’s doubles at the 2011 Commonwealth Youth Games. Here, as most players plotted their future course in their chosen discipline, coach Gopichand identified a hidden singles player in Srikanth.
The change didn’t last long. “All credit goes to Gopi and his mother. They saw the potential in Srikanth,” says a grateful Nandagopal.
Moment to enjoy! ❤️@srikidambi became the 1st male 🇮🇳Shuttle to win 🥈at #WorldChampionships while @lakshya_sen … https://t.co/LfKeDxMUc4
— BAI Media (@BAI_Media) 1639928934000
For his part, Srikanth did not disappoint Gopichand. A few months after becoming a full singles player, Srikanth won the title at the Thailand Open Grand Prix Gold tournament. A huge psychological boost came in 2014 when he upset five-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist Lin Dan and defeated the Chinese superstar in the finals of the China Open Super Series premier event.
Buoyed by the progress, a confident Gopichand worked hard on PV Sindhu and Srikanth ahead of the 2016 Olympics. The coaching staff were fairly optimistic that Srikanth would win a medal, but Rio proved an important part of the learning curve as Lin Dan avenged the China Open loss two years ago in the quarterfinals.
Srikanth accepted that setback and made 2017 a big year in his career by becoming the first Indian to win four Super Series titles in a calendar year. It was a turning point – the titles took him to world No. 1 in April 2018.
But this high was followed by a low in 2019 with a wave of injuries. The injury to his right knee in particular slowed down Srikanth. And as he recovered, Covid-19 forced him and the rest off the circuit. Without tournaments to improve his rankings, Srikanth failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
However, Srikanth proved he was made of sterner stuff – Gopichand had been impressed by his nerves of steel from an early age, and that came into play when it was most needed. Srikanth went back to basics, training hard and most importantly working on his fitness to stay healthy. The results were not long in coming. However, becoming the first Indian to stand in a World Cup final still has a long way to go. He has already turned his attention to the 2024 Paris Olympics. Knowing the newfound determination of a once lazy and troublemaker, this can only mean good news for Indian badminton.