Covid recovery helps Chirag Shetty-Satwiksairaj Rankireddy land India Open triumph
Chirag Shetty was devastated when his RT-PCR returned positive five days before the India Open badminton tournament. The Mumbai player with doubles partner Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, the second seeds, had pinned their hope of reaching at least the finals - something they had not achieved since 2019.
Nursing a sore throat in quarantine, Shetty decided to try his luck and get tested again on Monday morning - a day before the $400,000 tournament began. To his surprise, the report was negative. Chirag informed Rankireddy and they flew to the national Capital. Six days later, the world No 10 became the first Indian pair to win a doubles event in their home Open since the tournament was elevated to Superseries/Super 500 status in 2011.
“It has been quite a ride,” Shetty reflected on Monday. “Looking back, it was crazy. I didn’t expect to go to the tournament. Then I was scared I might test positive (in New Delhi). Luckily, I tested negative (again).”
Their second Super 500 title - they won the 2019 Thailand Open - came against formidable opponents. Indonesian top seeds Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan are three-time world champions, 2014 Asian Games champions and multiple All England winners, and are ranked world No 2. Nicknamed ‘the daddies’, they were idols of Shetty and Rankireddy, who grew up watching their exploits on court. They pulled off one of their biggest wins at 21-16, 26-24 in 43 minutes.
“If you’re playing a final against Ahsan/Setiawan it is never easy. They may not be the fastest but are the smartest. They usually play a game which doesn’t last more than half-an-hour. Even though the scores are close, the rallies are short. To beat them in a final is special; it was a dream match for us. It is one of the best matches we have played,” said Rankireddy.
“We didn’t put ourselves under pressure. We knew their game and watched their previous matches and had a clear plan. When they were down, I saw them being under pressure and making mistakes. I kept telling Chirag ‘andar rakhenge, aaram se (khelenge). We were pretty confident in the end.”
The Indonesians - aged 37 and 34 - are known for dominating the net, keeping rallies short, serving well and closing out points in a few seconds. To win against them, the Indians had to do something different.
“One thing we are good at is attack. We played a game where we were out of our comfort zone. We were playing strokes which we usually don’t. They tried to keep the shuttle low but we were lifting it, being ready for defence, not hurrying up, and trying to convert it (defence) into an attacking position. Strategically it was one of the best games we have played so far,” said Shetty, who in all likelihood would be promoted to world No 8 when the rankings are released on Tuesday.
“In tournaments we have won before, we have stuck to things we are really good at: attack. This time we won it on our defence. It is a big takeaway. We always depended on our defensive game and tried to improve, but last year, especially since we started working with (former coach) Mathias (Boe), we focussed a lot more on our defensive strategies while practising in Hyderabad.”
The second seeds won the first game relatively easily but were given a tough run in the second with the Indonesians ahead in the final moments. Shetty and Rankireddy kept it simple, forcing the top seeds to take risks and commit errors, thereby saving five game points. Those were nervous moments as both pairs made service errors - the Indonesians even made a service fault. The Indians held their nerve to keep things tight and converted their first championship point.
A significant factor in the tournament was their ability to switch positions rapidly. Normally Shetty plays in the front with Rankireddy smashing from back court. At the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex, they were changing positions more often. “I play at the back 70% of the time. I thought maybe I’ll play a few shots at the net where I am not expected. We worked on this with Mathias,” said Rankireddy.
Shetty said this kind of tactical flexibility is what separates a top-5 pair from a top-10. “We definitely played like a top-5. If things don’t work out, you try Plan B. We have been a lot more confident, be it receiving or serving.”
Despite a Covid-impacted calendar in 2021, Shetty and Rankireddy were consistent, reaching three semi-finals. But after being starved of a final, their main target was to reach it here, especially after disappointments at the Olympics and world championships. In Tokyo, Shetty and Rankireddy were unlucky to miss out on the quarter-finals despite beating eventual gold medallists Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin of Chinese Taipei and winning the same number of matches and points like the two pairs that progressed from their group. They lost in the last 16 at last month’s world championships in Spain.
“2021 was mixed. We wanted to reach finals, win tournaments. After the (loss at) world championships, I cried a lot. I wanted to win a medal. I was in tears for half an hour. That is why I had this fire and hunger here. I wanted to start with a win,” said Rankireddy.