Of swivel serves and taking risks: Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty stun World No. 1

At some point in the moments post leading 20-16 in the opening set, Chirag Shetty tried his swivel-serve. The top Indian doubles pairing of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty were playing Japan’s World No 1 pair of Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi. Shetty’s swivel serve aims to confound — he swings his serving shoulder along the ribcage axis and seeks to muddle the receiving of the serve by masking the exact moment and angle of release and attacks on the subsequent second shot with speed. Many mistake his trying-too-hard for nervous restlessness when it all goes kaput.

On Friday, playing in their favourite tournament the French Open where they’ve had some memorable weekend forays, Shetty once again brought the 20-16 advantage to a 20-20 game-on situation. But doubles is about bold badminton and risk-taking. Even as the Indians allowed the Japanese a toehold into the door, on this day, they showed the courage to fight on a higher gear post the 20-all stalemate.

Six frittered points later, they continued to serve boldly, Chirag defended like he had a wingspan of 9 feet and the pumped up pair grabbed the opener 23-21. Eventually the Indians swatted away the Japanese 23-21, 21-18 to make the semifinals. They play Choi Sol Gyu and Kim Won Ho on Saturday at the Stade Pierre de Coubertin.

But back to the swivel serve. Satwik has his own stab at it — though its ability to deceive opponents is highly suspect. He tries anyway. So his torso doesn’t swivel, only his forearms seesaw a bit comically. Then he returns to the normal stance and sends forth a decent if predictable serve, anyway. Chirag’s meditative incisive seeping dive into adding serve variations where he spends hours experimenting is well known.

So there was a fault in that frenzy post 20-16, and also a super attacking iteration with the same action that yielded a point, as he salvaged his own error. Packing it all in, darts and warts and all, Chirag Shetty displayed true grit to bounce back from mistakes, which are inevitable in the perennially fast-forwarded world of men’s doubles.

In the second, the Indians trailed 13-9, 15-12 and 18-16. But in what has been champion determination of recent vintage, the Indian duo would go on a 5-point rampage and wrap up the match in 49 strutting minutes. Coach Mathias Boe stays on their case, and the body language was infinitely better than last week at Denmark. But it was the confidence at the core that helped them finish with that run of 5 points.

In course of their progress and disappointments, Satwik-Chirag are taking the next step from Top 10 to Top 5 in doubles: their defense is smoothening out. It looks effortless against a steady paced pairing like the Japanese, a hallmark of top doubles courtcraft, though it could get much better when confronted with the Indonesian and Malaysians. For all their ranking and World Championship title wins in 2019, the Japanese are not undecipherable, which shows in the Indian’s 3-1 head to head now.

Still, the top ranked pairing boast of a strong defense, and it is here that both Satwik and Chirag played the smartest badminton on the day. They would draw them closer and closer to the sidelines and tease out wide errors. But on a day when they were on song, the sweetest winners came when Chirag first, Satwik in tow, bissected the Japanese bang middle of court with their scampering steeping attacks from the back court.

When they play like that, the Indians look like they truly belong. Question is can they go the distance after ejecting the World No 1s.

The new Koreans

In the semis, the Indians run into the newly reunited Korean pairing of Choi Sol Gyu, 27, (world’s quarterfinalist) and 23 year old Kim Won Ho, who made the Indonesia finals early this year. The Indians have never played this combination together, though the Koreans have reached World No 18 pretty quickly and cannot be treated as rank unknowns.

The French Open has seen the emergence of a new Chinese pairing, Liang Wei Keng and Wang Chang who ousted the world champions Aaron-Soh in Round 1 – whether out of the Malaysians’ exhaustion from playing back to back events, or their own bombastic breakthrough run.

For Satwik and Chirag, the mystery of the Korean game might pose an early challenge, though they have looked good to improvise and generally been high on confidence at a venue they dig. Still the Indians would be keen to set an early trend and grab the first honours against the usually fleet footed Koreans. 2022 has been a good year for the top Indian pair. But nothing beats a run to the title – imminently achievable after their accounting of the World No 1s.

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