From aggressive to intimidating: The Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty story

Making the reigning World Champions look pretty pedestrian playing at home when defending their title, would count as one of the lesser gloats for Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty after their sensational 24-22, 15-21, 21-14 victory over Japan’s Takuro Hoki – Yugo Kobayashi.

Ensuring a first-ever Men’s Doubles World Medal for India, and importantly for themselves, is, of course, the bigger boast.

Hoki-Kobayashi also had silver from the 2019 edition at Basel, and had emerged from the pandemic isolation in the 2021 season with four titles from five finals, plus the World’s gold. They didn’t make Japan’s contention for the Olympics, which the home shuttlers spectacularly botched, and had just the Malaysia title in 2022. But seeded second, and with a blitzy game with reliable defense to their credit, the duo had started as favourites in the quarterfinal going for their third World’s medal.

Yet, in what evokes memories of India’s Summer slam of badminton, the Thomas Cup triumph, Satwik-Chirag have raised hopes of going the distance at the Tokyo edition, with this win over the World No 2. Shetty reckoned the Thomas Cup title – where the doubles success was pivotal to wins – still sits a little higher than Friday’s win. But should the individual World title come their way, it will count as equal to the dream team triumph.

Satwik-Chirag’s success comes from their insatiable appetite to prove they are amongst the world’s best after a few seasons of dawdling in the Top 10, when they ran the biggest names close. Then they wanted to be that big name themselves. So, in rolled the ambitious 2022 season where the India Open title didn’t mean that the Thomas Cup was a step too far. Where the Thomas Cup miracle marvel didn’t imply the Commonwealth Games couldn’t be won. And where the CWG triumph was no excuse to not peak for the World’s. The 2022 summer came as a package – the duo wanted to win everything, polish off the buffet. Hoki-Kobayashi stood no chance in the decider, given how at home the Indians felt in Tokyo, where they had missed out at the Olympics despite playing like the top names, even beating the best.

And so when the Friday sun rose in Tokyo, the Indians couldn’t wait to turn up and push out the home hopes. Satwik was eager as ever to scalp the bigger name. But it was in Chirag Shetty’s uncharacteristic calm that India found its winning totem, the centred axis.

Chirag believed this Japanese pairing was beatable. Such instincts are based not on rankings, but a thorough homework of playing styles and conditions. India’s super-smart coach Mathias Boe, who broke down several Asian pairs with his astute analysis as a player, had pinpoint instructions. Keeping the Japanese mobile and busy and not affording them an inkling of the shuttle trajectory with nice loopy puzzles was the plan. Like a thermostat regulates heat, the Indians kept a check on the pace. Placement got them points and a 11-5 lead in the opener as the poking Hoki was harried and hassled kept occupied in pursuit.

Then, the Indians got drawn into flatter, faster exchanges – never a good omen as with the tables turned, errors came in a heap. Twice, the returns went long and twice the smashes crashed into the net, a sign of being jostled. The Japanese levelled at 14-all.

Then came the moment of magic. Satwik snapped his strings and hopped out to pick a new racquet. Chirag was in the zone by then at 18-17, and sent back two on either flank, allowed the returning Satwik to give those new strings a thwack, and then finished off with a flying sideways cross for 19-17. Still, the Japanese resistance was only just needled into action, so they levelled at 19-all.

Amidst wondering how Chirag was keeping it together so coolly, Satwik erred in the net.19-20. Chirag had his back, troubleshooting with a steep dunk knowing the flat exchange baiting by Japanese was well and truly done. 20-all. Chirag would bring his share of error at 22-all. He would make amends himself with another downer from midcourt before celebrating with an angry yelp as the next winner, gave them the lead.

The roar was premature, and a mistake of blood-rushing proportions. So buzzed were the Indians and so convinced was Chirag that more of the “neeche maar” would tug away the second set for them, they got carried away and dragged into a decider after the Japanese won from the worser side, 21-15. Hoki had more decibels, Kobayashi the more pertinent footfalls – arching defense and sturdy defense on court.

It’s in the decider that the Indians took anything the Japanese would do, out of the equation. The Indians who are comfortable at the slow shuttle Western express highway pace of shuttle traffic – it moves, but don’t count how long you stare at a passing hoarding ever in Bombay – hit the liberating sea-link, with a minimum speed limit enforced.

Upping their aggression, with Chirag now as proactive as he stayed poised, the Indians had yet another 11-5 lead. Uncluttered through Boe’s gameplans that saw them begin to bully the Japanese now, the two kept the shuttle discipline – hands held high to catch the shuttle early, and the bird sent right down promptly to avoid any parallel game hysterics. The Japanese never led, never recovered, and peacefully seemed to be handing over the crown for keepsakes, hopefully for a Sunday coronation.

The Chirag leap of faith

The story goes that on a vacation at Mangalore with his family, Shetty got a call from his Mumbai coach Uday Pawar that the then All England champ Mathias Boe was in town, and he could maybe spar with the Danish Olympic medallist. Chirag, then 15, took a late bus out of the seaside city alone and turned up for practice at the Goregaon Sports Club. That was the first time Chirag Shetty took charge of his career.

Over the years, the soft-spoken man has prevailed in convincing administrators that Boe ought to work longer with the Indians. During Covid lockdowns, the local ward office and police station got a request to allow Shetty to train at Goregaon stadium.

Noone opposed it, but Shetty’s restlessness to get on with training had impressed the stunned officials. Some of his biggest disappointments, Chirag has nursed himself back to feeling normal by immersing in practice and urged by his father to become more decisive. “How else do you learn?” his dad says recalling that bus ride decision.

He’s worked on crouching lower at the net to improve his game, and erase predictability of the combine by adding variations with his swivel serve and racquethead angles, even as Satwik’s intuitive calm bearing steered them forward in early years.

What was a smart, tall, aggressive pairing has taken a year to turn intimidating. It’s come from his implicit belief in Boe who he knows has won at the highest level, and can do the backroom abacus for the pair to execute on the shop floor. With the Thomas Cup came the fearlessness and a self-belief that will be hard to put down by just wearing a badge of world ranking. Satwik-Chirag covet Top 3 position. After Friday’s result they look like they are playing like one.

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