Kidambi Srikanth announced his arrival on the world stage beating Lin Dan at the China Open in 2014. He will run into a mini-Lin Dan in his Round 2 at the Huelva World Championships, as Chinesei Li Shifeng, the reigning Youth Olympics gold medallist, has broken through into the senior ranks in a way only the Chinese can: scalping big names and hitting the ground running.
A 21-12, 21-16 win over Pablo Abian in his opener puts Srikanth in the pathway of the restless Chinese, out to stomp their authority in the absence of seniors Chen Long and Shi Yuqi, suspended by the Chinese badminton federation, for showing defiance.
Li’s pedigree is not entirely surprising given that Chinese shuttlers always enter the international stage with a certain level of proficiency in shredding reputations. If they are allowed to compete outside, it means they are ready. And Srikanth will run into a 21-year-old who grew up – literally – coursing the Lin Dan game through his veins.
“My father showed me videos of Lin Dan every day in my childhood, asking me to imitate his playing style,” Li had told Olympics.com after winning the Youth gold in 2018. “If there is something I don’t know (on the court), I will go to Lin’s video to find the answer. Now I will follow the steps of my idol to fight at the world championships and Olympic Games,” he adds despite his inspiration being a left-handed player.
The right-handed Li had devoured four of Lakshya Sen’s match points at the Youth Games three years ago – tearing his shirt with a roar in celebration, and at the Thomas Cup in October this year has beaten another talented Indian, Kiran George. He is ranked World No. 63 but also has wins against Parupalli Kashyap, Kunlavut Vitidsarn and Japanese Kanta Tsuneyama.
While all the talk at the Worlds has been around the missing Kento Momota and the Indonesians, the next-gen of Chinese is threatening to take the Worlds by storm. Another youngster – Lu Guang Zu – started out by taking out Thai teen sensation Vitidsarn, a three-time Junior World Champion.
While Srikanth was in aggressive touch against Spaniard Abian, India’s best bet at the Worlds will need to watch his back, as Li Shifeng awaits him in the second round. The Indian is in fine form, moving well and looking sharp. But while he plots his own march towards a first Worlds medal at 28, a generational leap has occurred in the Chinese ranks. And Li Shifeng is not looking exactly nervous like a first-timer.