Hard work pays off for Chirag-SatwikJanuary 17, 2022
Swamped by India’s singles results at all times, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty ensured they asserted their class on the India Open, beating three-time World Champions Hendra Setiawan and Mohamad Ahsan, ‘the Daddies’, 21-16, 26-24 in the final. Forever in the shadow of first the champion women and now the Worlds men’s singles medallists – Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen, India’s pioneering duo also gave glimpses of a game that can push them into the Top 5, higher than their current Top-10 perch.
Men’s doubles is about otherworldly fast exchanges and reaction speeds – absorbing incredible offensive onslaughts that come at record-smashing speeds. The Indian pairing have hitherto survived on cerebral takedowns of opponents by maxing their attacks. On Sunday in front of an empty stadium and a dozen lurkers, Satwik-Chirag soaked up barrages, by “playing like Top 5” pairs in defence.
It was admittedly out of their comfort zone – which sees canny placement and clever 1-2s as their stock reactions.
The match was supposed to be contained at the net. But the Indonesian Daddies, perhaps the smartest pairing on the circuit, at 37 and several world medals later, were always going to be a handful. Though their smashes lack the sting, the Indonesians tested the Indian duo’s patience and defence – a sort of incessant consistency is demanded in these situations.
Satwik even bit into and committed himself to the idea of long rallies – he usually prefers quick exchanges.
Things were neck and neck at 7-7 and 13-13 in the opener. Chirag was sharp on the day, and even though Satwik tallied a bunch of errors, he would invariably be in position for the crunch kills, even as Ahsan refused to budge in defence despite the relentless attack. The Indians would break away at 18-13, and pick the opener with Chirag manning the backcourt adeptly and staying pinpoint in the barrage of first, second and third smashes.
Things got interesting in the second when the Indians couldn’t cross the finish line from 17-14 on a canter. The Daddies would get defiant, and start testing the younger Indians. But before that, there was a memorable point at 9-10, when Satwik sprinted out of the court to change his racquet, and the Indians ended up winning the point to draw level at a crucial juncture.
“Satwik hit two strokes, broke his strings. I knew we had to get the racquet changed because it won’t finish in a smash,” Chirag explained. After the third one, Satwik dropped it and moved to the net. “I knew I had to hit continuously.”
It was one right scramble for Satwik. “I felt far from the court… racquet nahi mil raha tha (couldn’t find the racquet). I was thinking, Kidhar hai, kidhar hai (where is it). But one of the best rallies, I’d say. I knew he (Chirag) can cover me,” he would explain. In the end, Satwik would smash steep, and Chirag was at the net for the follow-up downer.
Chirag had been sharp while angling back defensive returns, but the Daddies would amp up their stubbornness at 20-20. Then nerves would puddle around all four on the court, as Hendra twice hit into the net, and both sets fumbled on serve at 24-24. Eventually, Hendra dumped one into the net to give the Indians the title.
Turning the corner
It’s been a wretched time for India’s breakthrough pair, who beat the eventual Olympic champions in Tokyo, but couldn’t get out of their group. Then the Worlds dished out another disappointing loss. “At the world championship, I cried for half an hour after losing,” the burly big-booming Satwik would narrate. “I wanted as many podium finishes in 2022 as we could win.”
The evolving gameplan means a step forward, in stepping up to Top 5, where without a dependable defence, you are goners. So, Chirag would talk of being ready for flat serves in finishing and keeping their nerve even when trailing by 4-5 points. Most pertinently, they would need courage to lift the shuttle knowing fully well that it prompted an incoming smash at all times.
“We keep the shuttle low usually… We were lifting and being ready in defence to convert to attacking positions,” Chirag said.
Satwik tested positive in the first wave of the pandemic, and Chirag was positive till five days before the India Open but subsequently returned two negative tests. The virus was a stop-start nightmare for the duo.
“I can’t say ‘focus only on practice session’, for it’s tough to train with no tournament, no goal. But we began pushing in training sessions, enjoying in a jovial environment, and learnt to let go. Not think too much,” Chirag said about staying unfussed about uncontrollables during a title drought.
“I was prepared, wanted to do well in finals, we had a clear plan. No problem if we made mistakes. Kept calm when down,” Satwik said, while piling pressure on their opponents.
Not enough credit goes to the duo who have won top podiums at competitive arenas, though beating their idols at home, and summoning Plan B, will stay memorable. “Earlier, we stuck to things we were good at. This we won on defence,” Chirag said.