Kidambi Srikanth assures himself that things will turn around; that staying injury-free and working hard are key to recapturing the peak that he once occupied.
It’s a sentiment he often expresses; it’s a response he offers spontaneously to questions on form.
From a heady time of winning titles breezily, to struggling to stitch up a sequence of wins, the Indian has witnessed first-hand the vagaries of form.
But what, really, is form?
What is its relationship with fitness, with confidence, with technical adaptability, and with coaching? Kidambi is having to confront these questions at a fundamental level.
The reference year for the Indian is 2017, when he won four Superseries out of five finals and rose to world No.1 on the back of those successes. The following two seasons however saw a steep fall – in the 24 events he played in 2018 and so far in 2019, he exited at the quarterfinals stage or earlier in 21; ten of those being first or second-round losses.
At the TOTAL BWF World Championships 2019 his struggles were manifest against opponents like Nhat Nguyen and Misha Zilberman, before he fell in rather lacklustre fashion to Thai 20-year-old Kantaphon Wangchaoren.
“It’s not like I’m playing badly,” Kidambi offered, after the Zilberman match. “The opponents really are playing a level higher. For them (lower-ranked opponents), it’s a big event, there’s not much to lose, so they play their heart out.”
It was his way of rationalising what would have seemed below-par performances when he was at his peak. There are many underlying aspects to form – and Srikanth has had to field questions on several of them, particularly on his self-belief.
“I definitely cannot say it’s a confidence issue, but if I keep winning some matches continuously, I’ll definitely get that confidence back,” says Kidambi, contradicting himself somewhat. “It’s definitely a matter of time. It’s nothing other than that. The moment you start winning some matches, you automatically gain that confidence and you feel you’re on top of the world, and you end up playing so well that you never even imagine.”
For Kidambi, his slide from No.1 to No.10 is mainly about the injuries that cropped up from time to time, which he says prevented him from establishing winning momentum.
“In the last eight to ten months, I haven’t been able to train for a longer period, I was getting injured and then coming back and training for a week or two and then playing a tournament, and then I’m pushing too much at tournaments and injuring myself again. I want to go back and train for a longer period, and I think if I can do that from now, for the next 12 months, I will be in good shape for the Olympics.”
A recurring question has been the shift of the Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo from India to Singapore; his exit coincided with Srikanth’s dipping fortunes.
Kidambi responds by pointing to the performance of Singapore’s singles shuttlers, two of whom did capture attention at the Worlds – Yeo Jia Min, who upset Akane Yamaguchi, and Loh Kean Yew, who nearly did the same against Chou Tien Chen.
“I think Mulyo definitely made a lot of changes; it’s just not me, the others also performed really well in 2017 and you know, he definitely has something in him. If you see the Singapore players, they are doing well, like Loh Kean Yew, and Yeo Jia Min beating Yamaguchi, it’s not an easy thing. He’s definitely done that.
“I think he has that in him, he’s definitely made the change the moment he went to Singapore… We also have a Korean coach who’s doing really well. Personally, the issue is with me, it’s not with the coach for now. It’s more about playing continuously, training continuously.”
Is Kidambi’s dilemma on form therefore a classic chicken-and-egg situation – that he can’t build confidence without getting great results, and he can’t get great results if his confidence isn’t high?
He sounds certain on what he has to address.
“It’s about getting physically 100 per cent, about training really hard, that’s what matters for me now. I’m really not in a hurry to do it, I’m looking at the Olympics as a target, peaking at the Olympics, so it’s about gradually increasing the load.”
The nostalgia about 2017 is there, but he acknowledges he has to move on.
“People have moved on from there, people have improved from 2017, it’s been two years, and everyone might have moved a level higher. But for me, I might be playing at that same level. If I can train well and move a level higher, I will get there.”