Half smash, full hit

Hopping from Vizag to Khammam to Guntur, finally in Hyderabad and spanning a decade, newly crowned badminton men's singles national champion K Srikanth has tinkered and tweaked with one particular stroke in shuttle — the half-smash.

The shot that launched P Gopichand into the orbits of India's all-time greats with his All England win in 2001 (incidentally the year Srikanth started playing), arrived with the youngster's quiver full of strokes in Hyderabad, circa 2010. This was after his first-coach Sudhakar Reddy had exhausted his entire knowledge and poured it into his skillful but laid-back student who followed him to remote SAI outposts in Andhra. At the Nationals in Delhi last week, Srikanth unleashed at least half a dozen variations of the same half-smash while picking 10 straight crosscourt winners against RMV Gurusaidutt on way to claiming the title.

The chiseling of that one stroke that has happened in Hyderabad over the last one year under Gopichand, could give India probably its biggest star in men's singles, internationally in the coming years. In snatching the crown from P Kashyap and winning a Grand Prix Gold title this year, Srikanth has already announced his ambition.

Reddy's wards are taught the half-smash the way kindergarten tots learn to recite ABC, but under Gopi, Srikanth's half-smash is acquiring both mystery and might as the shuttler has laced it with power and speed nuances in long rallies. It is not unusual for Srikanth to send the shuttle down to three different spots (half-smashes are steeper than the flatter regulation variety) within a rally with only the minutest of changes to his action.

What also sets Srikanth apart from most of his contemporaries is his liberal dipping into his doubles shots armoury, given he was a proficient doubles player at the junior level. So, when dragged into playing drives in rallies, Srikanth is hardly ever troubled, and neither is he wary of aggression. While his fitness has gone up many notches and he's shot up to 6'1" from the time he was 5'5" when he picked the basics of the half-smash technique, Srikanth looks unstoppable, except against Sai Praneeth, another technically nuanced shuttler. The deceptive deviant of badminton's most explosive shot, the smash, might well push K Srikanth and his unorthodox strokes into the elusive Top 5 of men's singles in the future.

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