Doubling their success

badminton

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy (right) and Chirag Shetty have been on a roll in recent times that has seen them get among top-10 in the world. AFP

The Thailand Open triumph is the highest point in the three-year journey of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy. In August, by defeating reigning world champions Li Jun Hui and Liu Yu Chen of China in the final, Chirag and Satwik became the first Indian pair to clinch a BWF Tour Super 500 title.

The stellar achievement came on the back of days filled with uncertainty and doubts.  Four months prior to the Olympic period, a sternum fracture to Satwik ruled him out of action. “It wasn’t easy to be on the sidelines while my contemporaries participated in big events,” Satwik tells DH.

“For the first two months, Chirag trained alone and he then partnered with Pranav Jerry Chopra for a couple of tournaments. I cut off from badminton and stayed at home. I stopped thinking about the game and relaxed while I recovered. That helped me come back with a fresh mind,” Satwik recollects.   

Ahead of the Thailand Open, it wasn’t realistic to think of winning the title, points out Chirag. “Due to Satwik’s injury, we had missed many tournaments so our first goal was to reach the quarterfinal. That would give us good points and entries to bigger events. We were working towards a steady comeback,” he offers.  

But the Indian duo made heads turn by pulling off big wins against Asian Games silver-medallist Fazar Alfian and Muhammad Rian Ardianto from Indonesia in the second round and former world champions Ko Sung Hyun and Shin Baek Cheol of Korea in the semifinal.  

“I didn’t expect us to last the distance. We were confident of posting one or two upset wins but winning the final was an unbelievable feeling,” says Satwik.

Big growth

In the last half-a-decade, Indian badminton has grown leaps and bounds. The success of P V Sindhu, Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth has ensured India are no longer pushovers in the singles’ section.

In the doubles’ category, India’s hopes rested on Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa, the country’s most successful women’s pair. The 2011 World Championships bronze was the start of many highs for the duo that reached as high as number 10 in world rankings in 2015. After the pair fizzled out following the Rio Olympics in 2016, India were left searching for their next star doubles combination.     

Their encouraging progress, ever since they got together in 2016, has made Chirag and Satwik the country’s top-ranked men’s pair. At the French Open BWF Super 750 – second highest tier of competition – they extended their dream run to clinch silver last month. By recently re-entering the top-10 in world rankings, Chirag and Satwik have underlined their quality.   

Even as they set more targets, both the players remember the beginning of the journey which was far from ideal. It was national coach Tan Kim Her who formed the combination of two tall players. However, four first-round defeats in as many international tournaments put doubts in the mind of the Malaysian.

Identifying their specific roles took time. “Both of us attacked and that didn’t work for us,” says Chirag. Poor communication was a problem too. “Earlier, we didn’t discuss much. We hardly had conversations,” remembers Satwik.

Working with Kim Her, the young team eventually found its footing. “I realised I was strong at the nets. I started creating openings for Satwik, who had a better smash than me. So he remained in the back. The strategy began working very well for us,” explains the 22-year-old Chirag, born and raised in Mumbai.

The understanding too saw improvement, says Satwik. “He started knowing exactly where my shuttle would go and was ready for the response. We hardly had any differences and felt comfortable playing with each other,” says the 19-year-old Satwik, a native of Amalapuram.

Comfort factor

Their comfort-level reflected on the court as they won four straight tournaments in the Mauritius Open, Hyderabad Open, Tata Open and the Bangladesh Open in 2016. Indonesia’s Flandy Limpele has replaced Kim Her, who quit as the national coach in March this year. Bringing in foreign doubles coach has made a huge difference, feels Chirag. “In India, for doubles players, we have had coaches who are singles-centric in the past. The two foreign coaches we have had so far are doubles specialists. They know exactly the challenges expected in a doubles competition. Training under them has been a great learning experience,” he says.      

Kim Her and Limpele’s influence has not just been on the technical front, points out Satwik.

“Our coaches have made us mentally strong. We have also become physically tough players. In world events, we must be ready for the grind. We are now confident of playing long rallies. We have increased our training sessions and we maintain the same energy-level even when we play more games,” explains Satwik.

The duo aims for bigger success and finds inspiration from their senior counterparts.

“We see Sindhu or Srikanth play and we understand the fighting spirit and patience required to excel at the highest level. If you don’t focus and show patience, you are bound to stagnate,” notes Chirag.

“We want to go higher from here. India has had many successful singles players. We want to be a strong force in the doubles,” says Satwik.

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