That winning feeling: The changes propelling Satwik-Chirag to the podium

Updated on Oct 31, 2022 10:56 PM IST

The world No 8 pairing started the year with a bang, winning the India Open in January, and they haven't looked back since

Rankireddy and Shetty had reached the Paris finals three years ago too but when they won on Sunday, they ended a nearly four decade wait for Indians to win the title (AP) PREMIUM
Rankireddy and Shetty had reached the Paris finals three years ago too but when they won on Sunday, they ended a nearly four decade wait for Indians to win the title (AP)

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty emerged as the new big hope in doubles in August 2019 when they won the Thailand Open, becoming the first Indian pair to win a BWF World Tour title. For the first time since Jwala Gutta-Ashwini Ponnappa, India had a pair that could not just compete but also beat the best. The duo also reached the French Open final in October 2019, catapulting them to a career-best ranking of world No 7.

Though Shetty and Rankireddy regularly reached the quarter-finals and semi-finals of tournaments, they did not make the cut for summit clashes. They kept defeating the world’s best – be it Olympic or world champions or the world No 1 – but did not win tournaments – something that made them question themselves.

But whether it was luck or a multitude of factors, something changed in 2022. The world No 8 pairing started the year with a bang, winning the India Open here in January, becoming the first Indian pair to win their home Open ever since it was elevated to Superseries status.

However, their biggest triumph came in May when they won the Thomas Cup, quite possibly the biggest achievement for Indian badminton itself.

“The Thomas Cup performance under pressure really changed it around. Those sorts of wins under pressure against the Danes, Indonesians, and Malaysians give you a lot of confidence. That changed things around," U Vimal Kumar, former chief national coach and current selection committee member, said from Bengaluru.

The Thomas Cup victory spurred Rankireddy and Shetty on to become the first Indian men’s doubles combine to win the Commonwealth Games gold and then a bronze at the World Championships in August, also becoming the first men’s doubles pair from the country to medal at the annual event.

But Sunday had a different high in store as the seventh seeds beat Lu Ching Yao and Yang Po Han of Chinese Taipei 21-13, 21-19 in 49 minutes to clinch the French Open crown to become the first Indians, irrespective of the format, to claim a Super 750 crown.

Rankireddy and Shetty had reached the Paris finals three years ago too but when they won on Sunday, they ended a long wait for an Indian pair to win the event after Partho Ganguli and Vikram Singh did so in 1983. “After 39 years, it’s a big thing really. I am looking forward to seeing them at the All England. They have a good combination so there is a strong possibility (of them winning). They can easily be the mainstay of Indian badminton for another five years at least,” added Vimal.

The 'Mathias' touch

So, what changed for Rankireddy and Shetty in 2022? After going without a title for almost two-and-a-half years, the Indian pairing is churning out medals and titles every couple of months.

“Mathias Boe,” says Thomas Cup champion MR Arjun, who along with Dhruv Kapila is ranked world No 19 – the second-highest ranked Indian men’s doubles pair. “They were always playing well and winning. It was just the confidence boost that Mathias provided that mattered a lot. The small ideas that he gives has turned it around.”

Danish great Boe was appointed as India’s doubles coach before the Tokyo Olympics. He returned in the role in April. After the former world No 1 joined the setup, Rankireddy-Shetty won the Thomas Cup, the Commonwealth Games gold, World Championships bronze and now the French Open which Boe also won thrice.

Boe made some subtle but crucial tactical changes to the pair’s game. Earlier, their go-to strategy would be to set up Rankireddy for his consistent huge, booming smashes from the back after 6-7 strokes. “Now they do it in the first two strokes. Most of us (Indians) don’t attack early. But with this change, Chirag and Satwik downed the shuttle in the first few points. Once they start attacking, 80-90% of the time they win the point. Satwik-Chirag always had it but Mathias has worked on these light skills," Arjun said from Germany where he will be playing the Hylo Open this week in Saarbrucken.

In addition, Shetty has struck form at the right time and become lethal at the net, manifested by his game the past week in Paris, regularly killing birds anytime it appeared on his radar. “Chirag’s role is of a risk-taker at the net. When’s he in form, they become a difficult pair to beat. They have been one of the best pairs this season if not the best,” added Arjun, who used to partner Shetty early in his career.

Having a world-class pair and sparring with them has also acted as a huge boon for other doubles specialists. Arjun and Dhruv recently the first Indian men’s doubles pair to enter the quarter-finals of the World Championships in August. India now has four pairs in the top-50 of men’s doubles when there were none five years back. “It is a huge confidence booster to see someone from our age group doing this well, compared to the senior-junior feeling. Thanks to them the inhibitions have gone about challenging the world's top players,” concluded Arjun.

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    From badminton to cricket, Sandip Sikdar writes on many sporting disciplines. He has the experience of working in digital, news agency as well as print organisations. Motorsport remains his first love.

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