A little after 10.00 am Indian time on July 27, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy punched his fist. Standing beside him was his doubles partner Chirag Shetty. They both let out a roar. The shuttle did not make its away back from their opponents Ben Lane and Sean Vendy. The match was over. They had won. Straight games. 21-17 21-19 in 44-minutes. Two wins out of three in the so-called group of death.
Yet, their tournament was over. That was the last point they would play at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. You win some, you lose plenty. That is sport. In that instant, Satwik and Chirag won... yet the tournament was lost.
Moments before this match had begun, the world’s top-ranked pair of Marcus Gideon Fernaldi and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo had lost against world No 3 Lee Yang and Wang Chi-Lin of Chinese Taipei. That reason was enough to knock the Indians out of quarterfinal contention because even a straight-games win against the Brits would not be enough.
The celebratory moment was, of course, short-lived. Chirag patted Satwik on the back. They made their way to the kit bags and stood there for a while. The camera panned to a wider shot and the empty stands made for a fitting backdrop. In a stadium without fans, the win must have felt even more hollow for them. It sure felt hollow for those of us who watched it. Separated by a television screen, but united by that feeling of emptiness.
Around that same time, back in India, Olympian Aparna Popat drafted a tweet. She wanted to chime in on the moment, even as social media was buzzing. Most of it was in appreciation for the effort of Olympic debutants, earmarked for bigger things. It was not a good day for the Indian contingent at the Games, but their plight earned praise. Popat, though, could not bring herself to send that tweet. Not then, not since. She simply did not know what she could say that would make sense of what unfolded.
“Since the match has gotten over, I have drafted something to say, but haven’t been able to send,” the 43-year-old told Scroll.in on the night of Satwik and Chirag’s heartbreak.
“I don’t know what to say, I am just feeling so miserable… they did everything right. Everything was as per script. They had to win two matches to get out of the group, they defeated the world No 3 and only lost to the Minions. It was almost set, we thought if they beat the English pair, we could look forward to the quarterfinals. The stage was set, it’s just been so abrupt. I haven’t been able to come to terms with it. Everyone at home has been asking me why I am behaving like this.
“There was no reason to believe something like this could go wrong. It is sport, of course, yes. This is how group stage works. The mathematics. I get all that, things can happen. But…,” she trailed off.
Satwik-Chirag could have taken a game out of the Indonesians perhaps, but it didn’t happen. Both the final matches, could have started simultaneously, as per schedule. But it didn’t happen, because the match before the Indians’ went the distance. Playing their matches side-by-side could have put more pressure on the Taipei pair, but that didn’t happen. The Indonesians had a perfect record (3-0) against Lee/Wang and could have made it 4-0 if they were at their best, but that didn’t happen.
Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong from an Indian point of view.
“We knew the moment Lee Yang/Wang Chi-Lin won, we didn’t stand a chance. They won in two and we won in three,” Chirag Shetty said after the match. “But unfortunately, even after winning two matches we don’t go through. But that is badminton, we have to live with it.”
“It is unfortunate to see the Indonesians lose,” Satwik said.
At the heart of it all, sport is about skill. However, almost every elite athlete would acknowledge the role luck plays in it, one way or the other. It can sometimes be used to mask the real reasons for a defeat. You’d be hard-pressed to do that for what Satwik, 20, and Chirag, 24, went through. On their first experience of the Olympic Games, they showed the fearlessness that sometimes goes missing from first-timers, understandably, and did what many hoped they would before the tournament began.
“At the highest level, doubles matches get decided by how a pair does from 16-16, 17-17 in a game. Their match against the Taipei pair told me exactly what I was looking for from the Indians. That they are in form, they are playing the big points better,” Popat said about the first match which the Indians won 27-25 in an epic decider.
Ultimately the straight games defeat against the Minions, a tactical affair, did not go the way of Indians. Their record against them went to 0-9. It is not ideal, but not alarming either given the Indians are only recent entrants to top 10 and have time on their side to close this gap. At these Games though, you couldn’t hold that match against them, they did everything else they were supposed to.
It is one thing for an athlete to return home empty-handed from the Olympics after a defeat. That is how it is the majority of the time. Satwik-Chirag, however, found themselves exiting the big stage with a win.
“The tweet I had written was just to say that everything is alright. You did well. But… but… it doesn’t take away the pain. A lost opportunity. If I am feeling this bad, imagine what they must be going through. There are positives… but no, ya...,” the nine-time national champion Popat added.
The tweet, as things stand, never came from Popat. But the sentiment only got reiterated on Thursday morning. At around 8.00 am IST, the campaign of the Minions, as the Indonesian top seeds are known, came to an abrupt end at the quarter-finals stage. For a pair that is, without too many arguments, the best in the world at the moment, the wait continues for their first World or Olympics medal.
(UPDATE: In an even more bizarre turn of events, Lee/Wang became the men’s doubles Olympic Champions after defeating the world champions Hendra Setiawan / Mohammad Ahsan in the semifinal)
Is that a good thing because it could tell Satwik-Chirag that even the best of the best face these heartbreaks? Or does it make the emptiness turn into frustration because a genuine shot at a medal is now gone for no major fault of theirs?
Ifs and buts... here’s the thing. When asked what was the key to have a winning mind-set, Abhinav Bindra recently said in an interaction, “I won a medal at only one Games and lost in four others.”
For Satwik and Chirag, it is just one down.