Indian badminton, for long, has revolved around its singles superstars.
Be it Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu among women or Prakash Padukone, Pullela Gopichand, Kidambi Srikanth, and B Sai Praneeth in the men’s circuit. The Indian singles badminton players have often been the flagbearers.
Though the women’s doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa made for a formidable team, even winning a world championship bronze in 2011, none could follow suit. This was until Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy came into the limelight a year ago.
It was at the 2019 Thailand Open Super 500 event that the young duo beat the then reigning world champions Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen of China to become India’s first men’s doubles badminton pair to win a Super Series title.
It might be a year to the day, but for the Indians, the memory is as fresh as ever.
“I have a very clear picture of that day in my mind. It was the happiest day of my life,” the elder of the two, Chirag Shetty, told the Olympic Channel on Tuesday.
“There are tournaments you watch on TV and hope to play in someday. Participating in that was a dream come true. But actually winning it! That left us speechless,” Shetty said.
The win in Bangkok went on to have a significant impact on their careers. The Indians earned some valuable ranking points and made the top 10 on the Badminton World Federation charts.
Back from the dark
While their journey post the historic win is well documented, not many know that Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy were almost on the verge of conceding their second-round match at the Thailand Open.
Coming into the Bangkok event on the back of a hectic season, the Indian duo faced fitness issues. While Chirag Shetty was battling a nagging pain in his abs, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy had injured his playing hand.
“Maine (Chirag) Shetty ko bol diya tha, nahi hota hai toh concede kar denge (I told Chirag Shetty that we could concede if it was proving too hard),” Satwiksairaj Rankireddy remembered.
“I was playing the mixed doubles too. So that took its toll as well. We decided that we wouldn’t push hard. We wanted to conserve ourselves for the World Championships.”
Moreover, with nine of the top 10 pairs in the world participating, the Indians barely gave themselves a chance to go the distance and a conservative approach looked like the best bet.
Naturally aggressive, they chose to bank on their returns and smart shot selections to catch their opponents by surprise at the Thailand Open. Their strategy to play the waiting game was a success.
“I think that move to stay back and return the shuttle worked well for us,” the 19-year-old Satwiksairaj Rankireddy said.
“Everyone was expecting us to come out firing with our smashes and quick returns. But we couldn’t afford to do that since we were not 100 per cent.
“That surprised our opponents. They wanted to rely on the returning game, but we turned the table on them,” said Satwik.
The mental toughness
The switch in strategy, however, was only good as far as the final.
In the summit tie, the Chinese duo came prepared for the Indians’ wait-and-watch approach and stretched them to the limit before conceding the opener 21-19.
Even as the Indian duo regrouped to try and close the match, Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen reeled off four straight points at 17-18 to force the decider.
In the past, that turn around would have demoralised Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy. But not this time.
“Up to that point, we didn’t know how to win,” said Chirag Shetty, “But here (at the Thailand Open) I think we were a lot more calmer and it made a major difference.”
“Even in the semi-final, we were down in the second game. We had a match point at 19-12. But the opponent got back to 20-19 taking eight points in-a-row and we lost the game somehow. That can play psychologically in your head."
“But in the final, it was a complete turnaround and we won it quite comfortably. I feel a year ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do that. That was the major change -- the mental aspect.”
The mentality that Chirag Shetty spoke about was visible at two instances during the match.
First up, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy pulling off a flick serve under pressure at 19-18 to earn them a game point in the opening game and then during the 32-shot rally that handed them the title.
“A year back, I think we would have conceded 2-3 points more after losing a crucial point,” Chirag Shetty admitted.
“But this time around, even if we made an error at a crucial juncture, the next point would be a new point and we didn’t think about the previous point. That was a major change.”
This change in approach has worked wonders for them so far. But if the young Indian duo has to have a lasting impact on Indian badminton, they will have to maintain it going ahead.