During a season when the Indian badminton celebrated PV Sindhu and her heroics at the World Badminton Championships, two unheralded youngsters - one from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai and another from the coastal belt of Telangana - announced themselves on the international stage.
It was at the 2019 Thailand Open Super 500 event that Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty became the first Indian men’s doubles pair to win a Super 500 title after they beat the then reigning world champions Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen.
The duo then made the final of the French Open Super 750 event and broke into the top 10 in the world - also the first Indian men’s doubles pair ever to do so.
Chirag and Satwiksairaj had climbed several places to a career-best ranking of world No. 7 last year and came into 2020 with much promise built over the last few seasons.
“I think it started in 2017 when we reached the quarter-finals of the Korea Open and the French Open,” Chirag Shetty told the Olympic Channel.
This quarter-final in 2017 was a motivation to do better. The duo made the semi-final of the French Open and the Indonesia Masters in 2018 and in 2019, came the historic title win in Thailand.
“That, kind of, gave us the belief that we could do this at the international stage as well. We were clicking as a pair. Though there were a few problems, things were looking better.”
Not speaking the same language
But the journey hasn’t been an easy one. In fact, Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy recalled that neither they nor their personal coaches wanted to play together.
And it was against their wishes, in 2016, that the then doubles coach of the Indian badminton team, Kim Tan Her, decided to pair them up.
“It was a surprise, I won’t lie,” said the Mumbai-born Chirag Shetty. “The start was really bad.
“I think we participated in three international competitions and lost in the first round of all the three events. And that was our first year in the senior circuit. It wasn't a big competition either, we lost in International Challenge events. It was really demoralising.”
While Chirag Shetty - a gifted attacking badminton player - struggled to adjust to Satwiksairaj Rankireddy’s instincts to go for the kill, the youngster from Telangana found the language barrier a challenge.
“In doubles, if you can’t communicate well, you are in a lot of trouble. I think that’s what happened with us as well in the initial few months,” said Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who had never played with a non-Telugu partner before.
“I think that misunderstanding cost us bad in the first few competitions. I would want him to do something, but he wouldn’t understand and the other way around. And on the court, you don’t get enough time to explain what exactly you want.”
Moreover, with both predominantly being attacking players, the other issue that needed a quick fix was finding a dedicated net player among the two.
While men’s badminton has largely been about powerful smashes and lighting-fast rallies, it’s often the interceptions and the delicate netplay that helps decide the fate of a game.
“Aage kaun khelega? (who will play ahead?). This is something that bothered us. Both of us are tall and really good from the backcourt, so moving ahead meant a change in approach,” Rankireddy explained.
“One of us had to be closer to cover every inch of the court. It was coach Tan who decided that Chirag should play ahead since he was quick with his returns too.”
A couple of aggressive badminton players
But despite the problems Satwik and Chirag faced, coach Kim Tan Her was confident of the pair working wonders, and the national chief coach Pullela Gopichand believed in the Malaysian’s foresight.
“One thing that coach Tan always told us was our playing style was very much similar to what he would find across Asia,” said Chirag Shetty, a 2018 Commonwealth Games silver-medallist with Satwik.
“Indians often play like the Europeans, quite reserved, playing the waiting game. But we are different in that respect. We are like what you would find in the Malaysians or the Indonesians or the Chinese.
“We are tall, and we are all about attacking. That's what men's doubles is today. You can't afford to bank on your retrieving game alone. You need to be aggressive and take charge of the rallies.
“And in our case, both of us love to attack. At times it gets a bit too much (laughs). I think that's something that impressed coach Tan about us and he was adamant that we play as a pair.”
Though Kim Tan Her left the Indian camp soon after to join Japan, that didn’t affect the Indians, and the two have continued their development under Flandy Limpele to establish themselves as serious contenders at the international stage.