Kidambi Srikanth surveys his patch of results over the past couple of years running until last week - going off the boil, losing to the unseeded and unheard, stuttering to life, finding a few wins, moving up a couple of rounds - and describes it as his "start from scratch".
In his last tournament, in Saarbrucken, he made his first Super 500 semifinal in two years. "It's a lot like how it was when I made my international debut years ago. I would lose in qualifying, then I'd lose first rounds, I would go on to make semis and then the Super Series titles happened. It's a process of starting from scratch all over again. Even if I make a semifinal today, people will always hold up my 2017 results and say 'but you won four Super Series titles then'. I don't want to look at the past. It's not about thinking who I was, but where I want to go from here."
Over the past few weeks, he's been taking strides in that direction. Two weeks ago, he was on the next plane out of Paris after day one of the French Open, but he didn't go quietly. He picks his three-game loss to Kento Momota, an eleventh straight one - resisting the Japanese star's two match-points and winning four straight points to force a decider, as one of his "best" in recent weeks. "When you're 19-17, you definitely think you're there," he says, "I still need to crack pulling off such matches."
On Wednesday, he overcame a three-game encounter against France's Christo Popov in his Indonesia Masters first-round match.
With visa troubles reportedly keeping coaches away, Srikanth's campaign into the semifinal at last week's Hylo Open was marked by three Indian players - HS Prannoy, Sumeeth Reddy and Lakshya Sen, filling in courtside. His quarterfinal against world No 9, Ng Ka Long Angus, was a study in perseverance.
"Usually it's a calm, cool Srikanth, doing his own thing and not worrying too much about results," says Reddy, who sat in for the quarterfinals after his men's doubles and mixed doubles outing ended early, "But, I could see how badly Srikanth wanted to win that day. Even the little things I suggested to him, like changing the shuttle or having the court mopped, he just went ahead and did them. He's a former world No 1, a lot of people are watching him and it might be natural for him to shy away perhaps from doing certain things sometimes. But he's hungry to find his rhythm and is OK to try everything."
Reddy had his flight back to India the next day so Lakshya put aside his semifinal loss and stationed himself in Srikanth's corner. Between cancelled trains to Paris and a long wait for a red-eye, Reddy refreshed semifinal match scores on his phone. Momentum swung wildly in closing stages of the first game against Lee Zii Jia - like the 26 shot rally to bring up 19-all had Srikanth throwing the Malaysian off-balance with a down the line return, following it up with a jungle cat-like net charge and kill as his opponent sat on the floor, panting.
Lee then summoned a 365 km/h winner and stood hand on hips to nudge into a slender 20-19 lead, consequently picking up the first game with a crosscourt on the Srikanth's forehand side. The second game had Srikanth throwing in deft touches at the net, disguised drops and reverse slices, snapping at a tiring Lee's eagerness to not allow the match to spill into a decider. At the end of the 44 minute fight, both players were splayed out on the floor on either side of the court.
"I was just trying to save every shot," Lee would remark after the fight, "On his day, Srikanth is one of the best players in the world."
Srikanth went from four Super Series titles in 2017 - the highest-ever by an Indian in a calendar year - spending seven days as world No 1 in April 2018, three injury-plagued seasons, falling to losses in a heap, failing to qualify for a second Olympic Games to now showing promising flashes of his former self.
An iliotibial band friction syndrome that he developed on his right knee in 2019 impaired his run significantly. "After the injury happened, it took a really long time for my body to return to full fitness. Even though I knew I was nowhere close to 100 per cent physically, I kept playing since the Olympic qualifications had begun. I was already under a lot of pressure so didn't want to take a break. That was probably a mistake." He returned to full intensity training in January-February 2020 but the pandemic struck and tournaments ground to a halt a month later. With no Olympics on his calendar this year, he tread water for six months between the New Orleans Masters in March and the Sudirman Cup in September.
"Both times just when I was beginning to feel better about my play, there were huge breaks," he says, "I'm somebody who likes to play matches, I need that rhythm. But I was just training. That's all I could do. When you are playing constantly, you know what's working for you, what's not, and which areas to focus on, without that you're lost, you don't know anything. You have to purely follow the coach's program for you."
Unlike fellow Indian PV Sindhu, Srikanth hasn't struck the high notes at major events, even at his best. Despite possessing a bewitching attack and gifted net play, he's yet to medal at the Asian Games or the World Championships. He lost in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics to Lin Dan. The next World Championships are a month away and the Asiad ten months from now.
"I've been playing continuously for a few weeks now, so any big changes I need to work on might not be possible in this stretch. Even ahead of the World Championships in December I just have a couple of days which will probably be spent running around for my visa (Schengen)," he says, "The good thing is tournaments help me understand how I should play, what I should do during a rally, at what point I should attack, when I should play defensive - understanding these little things will come only when you are playing continuous matches. I'm aware no matter how I play now there could always be talk that I'm not as good as I used to be earlier. I just want to keep things really simple and not put myself under undue pressure. Next year is pretty big in terms of events - both Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, I need to be ready for them."
Acutely aware of it being 32 months since a final and an inordinate four years to his last title, Srikanth is tunneling his way through, playing it by the week. The eventual jailbreak, he believes, might take some more time. "I think there's a lot of difference between how I played in the Sudirman Cup and how I played last week in Germany. It's just about constantly keeping at it and trying to improve every day," he says, "It's still a long road ahead.