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Peak Introspection: Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen’s Medals at World Championships

Kidambi Srinkanth won silver while Lakshya Sen won bronze at the BWF World Championships in Huelva, Spain, on Sunday. While it has ended Indian’s badminton’s year on a high note, there is more work to do, for upcoming events with bigger stakes.
Kidambi Srikanth at BWF World Badminton Championships in Huelva, Spain.

Kidambi Srikanth in action at the BWF World Badminton Championships in Huelva, Spain (Inside story: Lakshya Sen).

Kidambi Srikanth, India’s top ranked shuttler in the men’s segment, had failed to make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics earlier this year.  A variety of factors came together to create the roadblock. As disappointing as that was, he seems to have made the best out of a difficult year by peaking at the fag end with stellar performances on the BWF Tour, and capping it off with a silver medal at the World Championsships in Huelva, Spain, on Sunday.

All’s well that ends well, surely. Srikanth’s medal, and also young Lakshya Sen’s bronze in the same tournament, should be celebrated. However, that salt bottle, for a pinch of salt, should also be somewhere where we can reach for it at will. There  are various points to ponder about, the foremost of them being how come Srikanth always peaks when the rest of the world is in mid cycle or are tapering off.

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Srikanth, a former world No. 1, and whose quality is beyond doubt, seemed set on a trajectory toward the Olympic podium when a winning spree saw him become the top ranked in the world in 2018. Injuries, and indifferent form caught up with him as the Games neared and Covid-19 did not help either. He missed out the early part of qualifying opportunity to injury, while cancellation of many tournaments this year meant he did not really get a chance to make the cut by sprucing up his ranking.

It, in many ways, was not Srikanth’s fault. Then again, part of the blame trickles to him as well. His journey between 2016 and 2021 should ideally be a lesson for him on how not to manage an Olympic cycle. He has always peaked at the wrong time -- contrary to what he has been quoted as saying after his silver in Huelva actually. 

“I am just happy that I could peak at the correct time. From September, when I started playing tournaments, I slowly started improving. Match by match, I could see the difference,” said Srikanth.

Lakshya Sen at badminton world championships

His words betray an athlete’s euphoria more than anything else. It shows srikanth, and as an extension,  Indian badminton, still has not developed the sense of peaking which the Chinese and Danish players are masters of.

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2021 was an Olympic year. For a sport like badminton, that is the year when the sole focus of the big players would be to win a medal at the Games. And the big ones did, including PV Sindhu. And since then, it is evident by tournament results and form displayed in competitions, that many, including Olympic champions have tapered off the intensity, periodising their training and performance to ensure they peak again next year. Srikanth’s final opponent at Huelva, for instance, was Loh Kean Hew of Singapore, the World No. 22. Srikanth is World No. 14. Viktor Axelsen, the Olympic champion from Denmark, lost to Hew in the first round. Such things happen in badminton for sure, but this may also have something to do with the end of a long season of Axelsen, where his priority was not the Worlds, but the next season.

Of course, the World Championships is a major tournament. However, professional athletes should look at larger career goals than one-off tournament landmarks. For that to happen, Srikanth, and for that matter young Sen also, should  probably pick a lesson or two from their compatriot Sindhu. Big tournament players are not born, they are made through a rigorously planned schedule with attention to a lot of fine detail. 

Sen and Srikanth’s victories are a great way to end the season on a high for Indian badminton. But that’s just about it. The real work starts next year, and we can only hope the players peak at the right time and not when the big ship has sailed.

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