Satwiksairaj Rankireddy has a new name for Chirag Shetty. “Rafael Nadal,” Satwik laughs. “He never gives up. I could see it this week.”
They joke about it now, nearly 30 minutes after winning the country’s first-ever badminton gold medal at the Asian Games. But when they were on court, Chirag feared he’d collapse if he stood still. Or at least Mathias Boe did.
Between almost every point during the final, the Danish doubles coach of the Indian pair kept reminding and urging Chirag to move around the court. “He was constantly asking me to keep moving and not stay still because I still am not physically 100 per cent,” Chirag says.
But at least he was fit enough to take the court. Chirag and Satwik won India’s first-ever badminton gold medal at the Asian Games, defeating the South Korean duo of Choi Solgyu and Kim Won Ho 21-18, 21-16.
The historic triumph very nearly did not happen.
Chirag, like many other athletes who stayed at the Village, had been down with influenza all week and Satwik feared that they would have to concede the Round of 16 match against Indonesia’s Leo Rollycarnando and Daniel Marthin. “I thought it would be a walkover or (we would have to) concede because he didn’t sleep the whole night,” Satwik says.
The lack of sleep was one concern; the worsening health was another. “That night was a really long night. I barely slept; severe back pain, severe headache… I went to the public clinic the next day, got some medicines and just prayed. I had to be back,” Chirag says.
A day off between the second round and the Round of 16 match gave Chirag additional time to recover. And though not completely fit, Chirag never really showed how much he was struggling throughout the week; darting across the court, covering flanks and controlling rallies with his back-court thwacks.
There was no indication of his poor health even during Saturday’s final as Chirag continued to boss the backcourt and unleashed steep, powerful shots to beat the Korean pair’s low defence while Satwik got time to get going.
Kim pounced over anything loose at the net but the Indians – who played most of the match side by side instead of front and back – had the court covered and, barring a few moments, were never really put under pressure by the Koreans.
Like red clay
Chirag said he got breathless as the rallies progressed but refused to throw in the towel. Satwik’s Nadal comparison is curious because Pullela Gopichand, the national coach, compares the Binjiang Gymnasium to Roland Garros.
Like the clay courts, where the conditions give players a chance to go for that one extra return, the slow courts here meant the rallies lasted much longer than they usually would, Gopichand says.
The shuttle that was in play only made the conditions trickier, he adds. “The shuttle they used here was a Yonex F90 which is a monster of a shuttle. It stayed true to its nature which meant the shots really travelled. There was no drift either, which meant the shuttle was always in play and the shots came really hard at you,” Gopichand says.
This was evident all through the match as the Koreans kept returning everything Chirag-Satwik threw at them.
The Indians started well but were trailing 14-17 in the first game where Satwik took time to get going. Some frenzied mid-court exchanges drew plenty of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the capacity crowd but the Koreans kept chipping away at their opponent, with Kim looking particularly sharp at the net.
Chirag did well to change the pace of the game and showed his skills at the net but it was a monstrous smash through the middle to break the Korean defence that gave India the crucial lead at 19-18.
Choi was denied a shuttle change, which irked him and he was warned for indiscipline by the chair umpire as the pair unravelled in the next two points, which the Indians played to near perfection.
A Satwik winner ensured India pocketed the first game and the Andhra boy grew in confidence from there on. The second game was more straightforward as the Indians took complete control to win it 21-16 in just 27 minutes.
As Choi’s return floated over the back line, Chirag and Satwik broke into their now trademark celebrations, dancing on the court and even getting the crowd to join them.
Satwik joked about how he couldn’t sleep the whole night due to anxiety and ‘kept hearing noises from the bathroom’ on the other side of the not-so-thick walls of the Village bedrooms.
But nothing on the court and during the post-match celebrations suggested these two men were sleep-deprived, anxious and unwell.
“Really great fight from Chirag,” Satwik says. “He is not at all fit. I could sense that on the court, but he didn’t show that to me. He always pushed himself. Really kudos to him for the fight he showed.”