The night before the men’s doubles final at India Open, speaking about their plan to take on the top seeds, Chirag Shetty and Satwikisairaj Rankireddy expected a fun match, spoke about handling the pressure and being cautious.
A sign of a good relationship is when you are able to complete each other’s sentences, they say. “We know they may not be the fastest on the court at this point in their careers... but they are,” Chirag started and Satwik chimed in, “...they are the smartest.”
They were, of course, speaking about their idols. Hendra Setiawan, 37, and Mohammad Ahsan, 34, have seen it all. On court, they still see it all. The bodies might be past the peaks, but for the pair that the badminton community affectionately calls Daddies, the minds are still sharp. Chirag knew that, Satwik knew that. And, playing the kind of game that is not what we are used to seeing from them, the Indian pair defeated the former three-time world champions from Indonesia to clinch the India Open Super 500 title.
And if Satwik-Chirag had to tackle their idols in the final, a little while later Lakshya Sen had to take on a good friend, who just happens to be the toast of the badminton world right now. The way Loh Kean Yew played in Huelva at the World Championships around a month back, he made jaws drop.
His semifinal opponent called him Superman, a former world No 1 on commentary said he was lost for words during his quarterfinal. Lakshya, though, had a closer look than most others over the past few months. Loh and he, along with a few other young guns of the badminton world, were part of the training stint that Viktor Axelsen had arranged for in Dubai in September. “He is a fun guy to be around, and even when we are not playing, he is the funniest guy in the room,” Lakshya said.
They have kept in touch of course, over Instagram and what not. “We exchanged messages during Worlds, then spoke about a big season coming up, he also had to attend felicitations in his country after the gold... we also plan to go back to Dubai [to train].”
But on court, they play to win. Friendship goes for a toss when the opponent is smashing with all his might like Loh can. Both of them might not be at their physical peaks, what with this tournament happening rather quickly after a gruelling end to 2021, but it still produced a match of great quality. In the end, Lakshya triumphed on his India Open debut to win his first Super 500 title, the biggest title of his career so far.
Two titles at India Open made it a memorable day for Indian badminton.
Satwik-Chirag: Out of comfort zone
Chirag’s assessment of the doubles final made for interesting reading. The night before, he had predicted that whoever dominates the net, will win the match and had also spoken about improving their defensive game; that they can play good attacking badminton in their sleep, but to beat the best they needed to be sharp on defence.
On Sunday, that is pretty much how it played out as they defeated the Daddies 21-16, 26-24, clinching a thrilling second game by saving five game points and then clinching their first match point.
“Strategically, it was one of the best games we have played,” Chirag said. “Whenever the shuttle was low, we were just lifting it and being ready for defence. Instead of hurrying up points every time, we tried to lift and then convert it into attacking positions. That worked for us”
Satwik said it was a dream that was still sinking in.
“It was a dream match for us,” Satwik added. “We had a clear plan, without worrying about mistakes... needed to stay in points. I feel we played one of our best matches ever. Even when we were trailing in the end... I could see they were under pressure, told Chirag ‘andar rakhenge, woh denge points’ (let’s keep the shuttle in, they will give us points).”
Rather than play into their hands by trying too hard to win a point, they tried rallying as much as possible, lifting the shuttles from low down as often they could and waiting it out.
“Coming into our home tournament and winning a title, it really couldn’t have gone any better,” Chirag said. “The other positive is that we defeated our idols and won the match playing out of our comfort zone. We won it by the way we usually don’t play. Our past success has been built on our strength which is our attack, but this time we won it on our defence. That’s one big takeaway.”
And having set their target as reaching the top five this year, they played like they belonged.
“It showed us we can win points and even matches while defending. I think we definitely played like a top-five pair today. That is one thing which kinds of differentiates top-five and top-10 pairs, because if things don’t go your way, you try to change and play a plan ‘B’ kind of game, that is something that worked really well,” Chirag said.
Having recently asserted that tournament wins are as important as good match wins, Satwik was glad to stand on top of the podium.
“2021 was a mixed feeling, like after the World Championships I cried a lot. We wanted to win a tournament, wanted to play a final. After the World Championships, I cried a lot, I wanted to win a medal. I was crying literally, I had a fire that I wanted to finish at the podium as much as possible, so that hunger was there and hopefully we will continue this form.”
Lakshya: Mixing things up
And if playing out of comfort zone and outsmarting their idols was the goal for the doubles pair, for Lakshya it was about mixing things up in attack and defence against a player whose game he is well versed with.
His stunning 24-22, 21-17 victory over Loh was also built on smart switches that saw him control the game for large parts. In the first game, he didn’t allow Loh to close in on the net often because he recognised the Singaporean was better there but did so in the second game when he controlled the shuttle better. He even revealed that he took a couple of mini tactical breaks, just when the nerves were kicking in.
“We know each other’s game well, what to expect,” Lakshya said having played Loh three times in the previous six months and trained with him. “I had beaten him few months ago, I was confident and had a game plan and it worked well. I am happy I won today and again it was a close game.”
In the recent past, Lakshya has spoken about the importance of patience and how it has helped him evolve into a better player in tougher matches. He had reiterated that point after coming from a game down to defeat HS Prannoy in the quarterfinal here. But in the last two matches, he showed that patience doesn’t have to be an overriding factor when he has the window to attack. Against Ng Tze Yong and Loh, he trusted his attacking game a lot more.
“Playing patiently, and going for the attack when it is needed [is what I am trying to do]. My attack, I feel, in the last two matches was working really well. I feel I could score some good winners from Loh’s lifts in the closing stages. When the shuttle was behind, I was patient and using the variations. The drops worked well, and there was always an advantage for me to go on the big attack after that.”
While the draws in general were affected, Lakshya still had to win the title by playing four back-to-back tough matches. To defeat Felix Burestedt, Prannoy, Ng and Loh with a combined playing time of 222 minutes is as big a test as he could have had in the first tournament of 2022, with limited training time in the build up.
“Played good physical matches and I feel it gives me a lot of confidence to play the season. The rhythm was very much there from the beginning this week,” he said.
While winning titles are always memorable, and maybe even more so at a home event, what must please Lakshya and Satwik-Chirag is the fact that they did so by defeating opponents of real pedigree. The tournament was affected quite a bit by external factors that threw off the draws, but on finals day, these two were the closest, highest quality battles on paper. And it turned out to be close, high-quality matches on court too. That, more than anything, should fill the three young men with plenty of belief for what’s to come.