Satwik-Chirag continue their silent rise, beat All-England champions to reach quarterfinals of Denmark Open

If there’s been a silently rumbling juggernaut in Indian sport this year, it is the doubles pairing of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy. Thomas Cup champions. Commonwealth Games gold. World Championship bronze. It’s not stopped raining in Shetty’s Mumbai and he and his partner haven’t stopped winning and ticking the boxes of big titles.

In a singles-less world – alternately, the late 90s and early Noughties of Indian tennis – the duo would’ve been as stratospheric in Indian sportsdom as Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were. As things stand, the two quietly go about their jobs, plodding away in search of the Paris Olympic medal which will be their ultimate prize. It starts with slaying a particularly obstinate demon – Malaysians Aaron Chia – Soh Wooi Yik.

The Indians have an unflattering 0-6 record against the Malaysian World Champions. This includes the World Championship that ended Aaron-Soh’s own search for a world title, where they quelled the Indians in three sets in a 77-minute long semifinal.

Four of the six faceoffs have been three-setters. More importantly, Aaron Chia is a master of the big occasion – lording over the four tournament quarterfinals and two semifinals. Satwik-Chirag beat back All England champions, Muhammad Shohibul Fikri – Maulana Bagas 21-14, 21-16 on Thursday at the Denmark Open to set up a seventh meeting with Aaron-Soh, and are looking very sharp. For a rivalry that’s bristled, brewed and boomed over the Thomas Cup (where Malaysians split their lead pair and lost), the CWG (beat Indians in the team final) and Worlds (edged them out narrowly in semis), their Odense quarters is relatively low-key. Cue: Indians play freely, and try break the 6-0 voodoo.

While you were surfing other sports

Satwik-Chirag’s Worlds bronze, though historic, remained below the radar, as bronze medals do – after the semis loss. It is also a testament to the high-quality badminton they play day in, day out – for four years now, if you will – that the Worlds exit in August was seen as a disappointment, rather than India’s pathbreaking first doubles medal. But only the duo know how tough it is to break through the Indonesian and Malaysian maze of men’s doubles in badminton – the smashes, like rain, never stop pouring. “15-20 strokes both ways with dozen smashes, and then you can start thinking of a point,” jokes India’s doubles coach at the camp, Arun Vishnu. “The winner in these matches is who can maintain quality of attack when tired.”

The opponents typically play flat drives at very high speed, don’t lift the shuttle – knowing the tall Indians will pounce – and are singularly relentless. Indians face this barrage every day – by definition, doubles is that – and have emerged as one of the world’s best – the Koreans they beat in Round 1 were no mugs, the Indonesians, as the All England affirms, are the hottest young pair from the doubles behemoth. Knowing that the attacks will be unceasing at the top level, Satwik-Chirag haven’t paused to celebrate their many achievements.

Thomas Cup done, they stalked the CWG title. That done, they got cracking on the World’s. The medal neatly folded away, Satwik-Chirag were on the court with coach Mathias Boe – chipping away, chiselling their meticulous game.

Satwik has lost some serious weight and is moving crisply with a disciplined diet and fitness changes. It is Chirag Shetty though, the deeply intense and overthinking youngster, who never stops trying, that’s fuelling this self-driven pair, whose coaches don’t need to tell twice.

Their training sessions are considered to be 100 per cent intense, simulating real competition. “Chirag is the last man to go off the court,” Arun says. “He’ll stay on for half hour 45 minutes after everyone is finished, and practice service, receiving, variations. Even after good results, these two haven’t gotten carried away. They keep working towards the next goal,” he adds.

The next year is the qualification for Paris, but the pairing has had a stupendous 2022 and the hunger to be the best has gone nowhere. “Maybe it was the Tokyo medal they missed that hurt. But they just don’t stop working hard,” Arun says.

The Aaron factor

The Indians will see their appetite reflected from across, with Aaron Chia, the formidable, frenetic, fabulously creative and forceful Malaysian. He is very consistent, plays high standards through a rally, and everything comes back.

Indians use the change of pace extremely cannily to deny the Malaysians a continuous stream of birds, though the World Championships strangely saw short rallies, and Indians were put under the pump in the third. Aaron has epic control of the shuttle, creates clever openings for Soh, boasts a masterful serve with variations, and brings pristine quality shot-making at the clutch. Soh cops the bullying that weak links do, but he’s done it so often he’s gotten very good at parrying attacks off. “If Indians get the first game, they’ll not let go. I’m confident they’ll break through the Malaysians,” says former doubles Olympian, Manu Attri.

He senses a win around the corner, adding that the Indians who morph their defence into attack, are looking good to put one across. “Satchi have gotten consistent. Earlier, they would give away 3-4 points. Now they give 1, take 3-4. Boe’s guiding them very intelligently,” he says.

“It has to break at some point. It could be tomorrow,” avers his partner Sumeeth Reddy, adding Indians carry the venom of being able to break any defence, and the Malaysians will remain wary of taking them on at the net, despite the CWG team event loss.

“Chirag has to shoulder the burden of creating wise setups against Aaron-Soh,” Reddy says, believing a win is on the anvil. “I don’t think Malaysians are ahead of Indians. They are equal. If we can just control the nerves, then we can win.”

Arun Vishnu reckons playing fearlessly will help Indians on Friday, even if copping the smash assault can be mentally and physically draining. The Indians can give it back as good as they get, and it’s why former players mark the contest 50/50.

Indian attack variations – not only do they tenor and key the pace, they mix their drops and half smashes happily to break the frenetic rhythm the Malaysians like – mean the 6-0 wall can break anytime now. “It’s about one win. Just one. Then the floodgates will open,” Arun promises.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *