Chirag Shetty headed straight to Hyderabad after the World Championships and an early exit from China Open, because coach Mathias Boe summoned a boot-camp to thrash out mistakes that had cost Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy precious podiums. Shetty didn’t return home to Mumbai then. When he comes back now after winning India’s first Asian Games gold in badminton, he will tuck into his mother’s special pomfret fry, and Kori Rotti – that sizzling chicken (Kori in Tulu) simmered in coconut milk and red chillis.
Hailing from the hotelier Shetty community with their magical alchemy of flavours, Chirag loves his spicy Kori curry. But soon after he started travelling the world to play tournaments, fellow doubles wizard Ashwini Ponappa nudged him towards Japanese cuisine – his favourite now and Chirag adapted his palate to the subtle sushi. Those three weeks between China Open and China’s Asian Games, were devoted to fortifying defense-to-offense transitions, as the saucier of India’s doubles’ kitchen, Mathias Boe rustled up the duo’s skills to prep them for Hangzhou. A wasabi kick was about to be added to an acquired taste of bland defense, as Chirag was to discover a fiery blend beyond the Salem Gundu and Kashmiri chillis – both smashing staples of Kori Rotti. Known as the world’s best attackers and fastest smashers, they were about to turn into a defensive delight these Games, though never far away from snapping for a kill.
Throughout the Asian Games campaign, when Satwik-Chirag beat Chinese World No 2s Liang-Wang in the Team finals, and when they stubbed out Malaysian Aaron Chia-Soh Wooi Yik, before downing Koreans Choi Sol-gyu and Kim Won-ho for gold, the Indians have played deceptive transitions from defense to offense. Not only has their low defense improved – slow shuttles helped in giving them extra seconds on the return – but their conversion to counterattack has been seamless.
Prepared for flat and fast exchanges, the Indians were tossing higher to the back court. And from close to the net, they blocked in a manner that forced opponents to lift. Defensive bolstering involved recovery after a smash to be ready for the next shot in a rally. And being in the right defensive position – knowing when and where to lift, if needed, in ways that didn’t give opponents any elevation. And mostly learning to not lift at all if they could help it.
Satwik’s master-skill was playing the parallel game from midcourt and back – relentless power pushes that went deep and into Korean faces, keeping them away from Korean hands. He would crouch out there – always ready to spring up for the attack but prepared to keep hitting flat if that’s what the Koreans insisted on.
But doubles is rarely ever decided from the back. Both Satwik and Chirag are competent at playing eyeball at the net. Chirag is Quicksilver at the net, or Pietro Maximoff, and does what Leander Paes could in tennis, though it’s his feet on invisible skates that make him a blur whizzing across. Make no mistake – he’s always had the speedy hands.
In juniors, Chirag grew a reputation of sorts for being the fastest receiver of serve. If slapping the shuttle back across the net in a jiffy can be called reception, and not retaliation as it viscerally is. It’s a pre-anticipation knack, gifted as he is to take that sharp step across and gain the extra second to kill at the net, and not offer the slightest chance to opponents. But tremendous speed and anticipation at the net were always his hallmark as a junior.
Satwik never beat Chirag in juniors when they played with different partners, and that knowledge is the basis of why Satwik respects Chirag’s skillset. Chirag’s acceptance in turn that Satwik had the more lethal, stronger smash convinced him to step up and play in the fore-court, learn the bending defense from scratch to bring his tall frame and head eye-level with the net, when both were equally adept at back-court booming duties. Satwik of course is a hitting beast, and this Asiad, both ensured their attacking smashes travelled deep and left crater-marks near the service line.
Both are supremely talented and skilled, so Mathias Boe can drill into them the transformations, to overcome the tall man’s higher centre of gravity issues. But the Dane, himself tall and playing front court, has trained them fabulously to deal with the flat game that Asians play. Satwik and Chirag, known for their brute power, are remarkably intelligent too, and in both semis and finals, they could open up the court, spotting gaps to pounce on. In the finals at 15-13 in the second with Koreans threatening to close in, all four players found themselves on one side caught up in the frenzied pace. The Indians could see a yawning open half court to the left, but they also sensed Kim moving there in a flash in the next few seconds and the smash that came in return instead went down the centre of the court, not to the left – a nuanced clever angle.
Satwik has always been a cool cat, confident about his attack and temperament, and game sense. But Chirag has gotten mighty impressive in processing the geometry of the court, reading the opponents’ reactions in the last one year, to ensure his hands follow up on his lightning quick feet movements.
It helps that both trust Boe implicitly and follow his calls on varying their serves. They both played un-Indian badminton, be it in attack or defense, though cleverness might get defined as the ‘Indian style’ given these two are writing the first draft of doubles success. Their finishing at the net is as intimidating as their renowned smashes, and both can set up the other so sharply that you shudder to even typecast them as front-player and back.
Not tethered to any specific style, Satwik-Chirag ensured their failures at World Championships turned them around into players who could counter any conditions-any situation-any style. The defensive bolstering – with an attacking kick, makes them even stronger than what they were. Their last three losses though have come to left-right combinations, and Boe will work on that next. Don’t fear a slump ahead of Paris, should it happen though, Satwik-Chirag will bounce back even mightier than they already are. Satwik loves his rice staple. But he too has taken to changing palates and is open to Parisian gourmet now. Anything for a nice, smashing chomp. And those takeaway title wins.