I n another universe, Kidambi Srikanth would use the back doors of airports and restaurants to avoid fan mobs. He would hawk pimple cream on your TV screens; BuzzFeed would do lists of his romantic pursuits; and NGOs would pressgang him into public service campaigns.Instead, here he is, the hottest badminton star, ranked third in the world, walking around unfettered on the rare occasions he chooses to go out. He has shot for exactly three adverts in his life, one each in 2015, 2016 and 2017. As he puts it, he is still getting used to ‘acting’. The logo on his shirt is not Pepsi nor Red Bull, but Bank of Baroda. And the only time when he pops up on Twitter timeline is when he is playing.
All this for someone who, pound for pound, has been India’s most successful sportsperson this year and world badminton’s story of the season. In terms of tournament winnings, Srikanth has raked in nearly three times more this calendar year than the nearest male shuttler — $230,422 to Lee Chong Wei’s $86,275. He became only the fourth in the decade-long history of BWF Superseries to win four Superseries events in a year, finishing runner-up once. (And there’s still one left!). To put Srikanth’s year into perspective, it would take a Rafael Nadal or Cristiano Ronaldo to match up to his annus mirabilis.
And yet, in terms of endorsement sweepstakes, he is not on the radar. Sure, Srikanth is not a cricketer, so he doesn’t sell by default. But then, that cricketers are the only sportspersons who have brand value does not hold true in India these days. PV Sindhu is reportedly the second highest earning sportsperson after Virat Kohli and commands nearly a crore a day for endorsement work. Among the dozen brands that she endorses is Gatorade who have also signed on the likes of Usain Bolt and Serena Williams. But where Srikanth falls behind a Sindhu or a Mary Kom or a Vijender Singh is that he doesn’t have a larger-than-life origin story, an against-the-odds narrative that brands love.
Srikanth’s social media presence, a vital parameter in brand value these days, pales in comparison with other non-cricketing stars. His 318k following – a number reached on the back of his 2017 successes – is not bad, but trails behind Sindhu (1.71 million), Vijender (2.58 million), Saina Nehwal (5.8 million) and Sania Mirza (6.8 million).
Not that he minds. “I don’t really want to compare (what I’ve got) with any of them,” he says. “I’m just happy with the way it has been for me. I think I’m really happy to give back something to the sport which has given me so much. If people are able to recognise me when I’m in public, that means the sport is growing. At the end of the day, all I’ve really wanted is to be happy with what I have done. Right now I have that.”Inner peace. Maybe that explains the run he is on. As Master Shifu puts it in one of the Kung Fu Panda films, anything is possible when you have found inner peace.
What makes Srikanth unique in these times — when every moderately-successful athlete is a biopic waiting to be made — is the unremarkableness of his tale. There is no Rocky-esque training montage, no Milkha Singh running over trains. This is simply the story of a boy who liked playing badminton, was insanely good at it and became one of the world’s best.An example of that is the diet he is on, to maintain the body of the world’s third highest ranked shuttler. “I don’t follow a specific diet,” is how Srikanth puts it. “It’s just more about not eating sugar. That’s all I think about, reducing sugar. Apart from that, it’s pretty normal.”
But that must be hard, sacrificing all the sweet stuff, all the laddoos and pastries and what not? “I don’t really eat too much sweet stuff anyway, so that’s fine,” he says, as casually as he sometimes dispatches opponents. “I don’t really go out,” says Srikanth. “There aren’t so many days when I’m not playing. I get one day off and I take some rest. The other six days, I am at the academy playing.”
Anybody scouting for a stirring biopic would be hard-pressed for drama here. That is, unless he makes one himself. The 24-year-old does have one guilty pleasure — movies. Fellow shuttlers at Pullela Gopichand’s academy speak of how he used to narrate movie scripts scene by scene and talk about making a movie himself. “It’s not like I do it every weekend, but I do go see movies sometimes. I really like movie-making, but you will have to see how it is for me in the future,” Srikanth says.
Perhaps Srikanth’s story is as extraordinary as they come. Perhaps its remarkableness lies in its unremarkableness.
When PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik won their Olympic medals last year, everyone went in search of the women behind their stories, the doting mother or the supportive grandmother, for it fit neatly with the theme. In Srikanth’s case though, what is notable are the men populating his story.There is brother Kidambi Nandagopal, who cleared the initial path for Srikanth. It was Nandagopal who first took to badminton and made the move from Guntur to Hyderabad. It was Nandagopal who first found Gopichand. Srikanth’s introduction to badminton was following his elder brother to the court. “If he hadn’t started playing, I wouldn’t be playing now,” Srikanth says.
Then there are his brothers-in-arms, his comrades in that group of Indian men who are taking the badminton world by storm this year. Srikanth is currently third, behind Viktor Axelsen and Son Wan-ho. There’s HS Prannoy at No 10, the man who beat him in the recent national championships, and Sai Praneeth — the other Indian to win a Superseries title this year, incidentally beating Srikanth in the Singapore Open — at No 16. There are three more Indians in the top fifty.
“Over the last eight years, I have spent more time with them than I have with my family,” Srikanth says. “We travel together and share our experiences. We don’t really go out much, but when we do, we go together. When we go to a foreign country, all we have is each other.”
And then there’s Gopichand. There’s perhaps no better illustration of what the teacher means to the pupil than a story an emotional Srikanth narrated when he was being felicitated in Hyderabad after winning the Indonesia Open. As he was preparing for the 2014 CWG, Srikanth suffered a sudden bout of illness that left him in the ICU. After being bedridden, Srikanth, bereft of fitness and confidence, set out with the badminton contingent for Glasgow.
As they waited at the airport — that Srikanth even remembers the name of the shop they were at should give one an indication of how deeply the incident touched him — a fan came up to Gopi and asked for a picture together. It was the then-anonymous student who was tasked with clicking it. As the happy fan retreated with his prize, Gopi called him back. “Take a picture with him as well,” he said, pointing to a stunned Srikanth. “A couple of years from now, you won’t get one even if you want it.”It’s 2017 with another CWG a matter of months away. Gopi’s words couldn’t have been any more prophetic.