Can Kidambi Srikanth pull off a comeback as Kento Momota did?
Momota recently broke a two-year dry spell by securing his first title in two years at the Korea Masters in Gwangju, Korea. Srikanth, in the meantime, has been reduced to a mere participant by his rivals. He has been searching for his first title on the World Tour since 2017.
Once a rising star who swiftly made a mark in badminton, displaying his dazzling skills and erudite game awareness, Kento Momota has finally recovered from a long slump in form.
Yet, from being the top-ranked player globally, he currently holds the 37th spot in the BWF World Rankings.
The shift in India's ace shuttler Kidambi Srikanth's career trajectory mirrors that of his Japanese counterpart Kento Momota, who recently broke a dry spell by securing his first title in two years at the Korea Masters in Gwangju, Korea, earlier this month. The last title prior to this feat Momota won was Indonesia Masters in November 2021.
Kidambi, aged 30, and Momota, at 29, share a strikingly similar career course. Both of them held the world no. 1 rank at the peak of their careers before losing shin and grace in their game.
Momota, however, recovered from the slump and transitioned from 'I started to dislike it' to 'I am really enjoying playing badminton right now'.
The Japanese ace showcased his remarkable willpower and tenacity to make a comeback in an intense and fast sport like badminton at an age when most shuttlers are past their prime. It is something Srikanth can draw inspiration from.
Momota, widely expected to clinch the gold medal in men's singles at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, faced a life-threatening car crash in Kuala Lumpur in January 2020.
The incident occurred the night after his victory over Denmark's Viktor Axelsen at the Malaysia Masters, ultimately leading to a fractured eye socket.
Prior to that fatal accident, Momota enjoyed an unprecedented run in 2019, with him claiming 11 titles showcasing sheer dominance over the sport. He lost only losing six out of 73 matches—a testament to his potential as a future legend.
However, following nearly a year of inactivity due to recovery, Momota, upon his return, appeared notably diminished compared to his former self. His declining form was evident as he faced elimination from the Tokyo Olympics at the group stage and encountered early exits in four out of five events on the World Tour he played.
Dealing with persistent injuries took a toll on his mental health too.
Despite being a mere "shadow" of his former self, Momota has finally managed to walk over the nightmarish phase of his career. He has made a mini comeback ending his title drought at the Korea Masters by defeating Koki Watanabe in straight games.
Srikanth, lacking composure
Srikanth, who became world no. 1 in 2018, won four Superseries titles out of five finals in 2017 to equal the record held by Lee Chong Wei, Lin Dan, and Chen Long. But he is now well past his prime as he has been struggling to find his mojo back after being troubled by injuries and niggles in the recent past.
In 2014, the emerging shuttler made a notable entry into the badminton elite. Srikanth, trained by Pullela Gopichand, caused a surprise victory against the two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan in the China Open final, becoming the first Indian to secure a Super Series Premier men's singles title.
However, following this success, Srikanth, ranked 24th in the world, faced a decline in form. Hindered by persistent injuries, the Indian found it challenging to maintain consistency on the World Tour, ultimately leading to his failure to secure a spot in the Tokyo Olympics.
Success for Srikanth has arrived intermittently. After his injury, there's a noticeable tendency to rush, occasional slowness, and a looming fear of failure.
The issue became evident as his periphery became limited to the initial rounds. It is a gloomy sight to see. Once the beacon of hope for Indian badminton and a mighty opponent, Srikanth has now become a mere contestant on the World Tour.
Despite his poor form in individual events, there have been high tides as Srikanth guided a young Indian squad to their historic Thomas Cup, the men's World Cup for badminton, victory in May 2022. He was unbeaten, and we saw a spark of his blazing form and that old aggression.
Continuing his success, he went on to achieve a men's singles bronze and a silver in the mixed team event at the Commonwealth Games 2022 in August.
Area of concern
But once he returned to the World Tour, he looked out of sorts again. He has been overshadowed by a string of defeats. Srikanth's best on the World Tour since the peak of 2017 was a runner-up finish at the India Open in 2019.
Despite India being 2-0 up against China in the historic Asian Games gold medal match, he couldn't deliver the country the maiden gold, facing defeat against younger Li Shi Feng. It paved the way for China's victory. The host stole the gold medal from India with a come-from-behind 3-2 win.
But it is not that he lost his fighting spirit. Most recently, he played a three-setter against world champion Kunlavut Vitidsarn of Thailand at the China Masters, but he ran out of air in the third game. The challenging phase seems to have tightened its grip on him once again.
It is quite apparent that Srikanth's continuous streak of losses is associated with his sluggish movement and lack of intensity. His poor confidence level also resulted in him losing the battle at the net.
He erred even when he looked poised for winners, sending the shuttle wide and long, conceding soft points to his opponent. The psychological stress evident in high-stakes matches is a hurdle for Srikanth.
Given his willingness to continue playing despite very little success in the past few years, Srikanth still has space to pull off a comeback. But the pivotal question is: Can Srikanth replicate the trajectory of Momota?
This leaves us pondering the potential within Srikanth. Drawing inspiration from Momota and even from his fellow Thomas Cup winning hero HS Prannoy, who has been making the best of the business struggle against him at 31, Srikanth needs to shift his focus to the present rather than feeling pressed under his illustrious past.
While his career showcases immense potential, the present must unfold with promise instead of pessimism. Srikanth must bounce back resiliently, avoiding feelings of dejection.
Both Momota and Srikanth share the common goal of competing in the Paris 2024 Olympics, signifying an opportunity for Srikanth to redefine his narrative and strive for excellence.