At 21-21 in the second game, in the second match, of the Thomas Cup final against Indonesia, Chirag Shetty saw a booming smash coming his way from Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo after a flick serve from Satwiksairaj Rankireddy. India were ahead 1-0 in the tie but the combo pair of world No 1-No 2 from Indonesia had won the first game and were on the brink of levelling the tie for the defending champions. The Indians had already saved four match points, but who knows what would have happened had that smash from Sukamuljo had the desired effect in Bangkok on Sunday.
Let’s freeze there for a moment. Cut to Dallas, USA. Watching the match there was Ramcharan Rankireddy, Satwik’s brother, as nervous as any of the thousands of Indians glued to their screens. When the Indians were down three match points a minute or so earlier he hoped, and prayed.
“At that point, my mind went to the devotion angle,” Ramcharan recalled those moments to Scroll.in. “Our parents were in Tirupati on that day for Suprabath Seva, which is a lottery thing. They had applied for it way back but it so happened that they got it for that day. There was another seva which they applied for after going there and they got the lottery for that also. They were not actually watching the match. So I thought, ‘if there is any time for this devotion to work, this should be it, today should the day’. And I just prayed to god. Kuch toh karo, kuch toh karo...”
Back to Bangkok. As the shuttle from Sukamuljo’s smash zoned in like a homing missile on Chirag’s mid-riff, the 24-year-old instinctively went for a ‘tweener. Both feet up, racket coming from behind the body and through the gap between his legs... the connection was good, the shuttle had enough on it to go all the way to the backcourt. Sukamuljo, no stranger himself to such moments of audacity on the court, let the shuttle drop thinking it was going out.
But it didn’t. It landed well in.
Whether it was divine intervention or nerves of steel or a result of hours and hours of practice (or a combination of all three), Satwik-Chirag produced a phase of play that was scarcely believable. They eventually won the match 18-21 23-21 21-19 in three thrilling games to put India 2-0 up after saving multiple match points against two great doubles players.
Men’s doubles is Indonesia’s kingdom, their strong suit. And the Indian youngsters had just stolen a march on them. In exactly one hour after Chirag leapt up in joy, took his shirt off and hugged his partner Satwik as well as coach Mathias Boe in celebration, India were crowned the world men’s team champions in badminton for the first time in history.
Before the match, when Satwik addressed the team, he told them, among other things, that one moment can change any match, they just needed to be patient. They had seen all week how teams fought back from the brink to win matches. “When Ahsan hit the shuttle into the net for 20-19 in second game I thought okay, ‘some luck is there for us’,” Satwik said after the match. “From that point, the luck kind of shifted to our side,” Chirag added.
Incidentally, at the All England Open this year, with Chirag looking desolate, a wry-smiling Satwik spoke about the lack of luck in their heartbreaking loss against the World No 1 Sukamuljo-Gideon.
Sometimes, the best in the business, make their own luck. And what more, because Ramcharan told friends he met at a tournament in Dallas – including a few Indonesians – that India will win 3-0, he had earned himself five free dinners.
World-Class doubles pair
Now, how about this for a stat? Since 2010 to 2018, in the four editions of Thomas Cup that India took part in, they won a total of one MD1 match (the first men’s doubles tie on rankings, where the best pairs from each team compete) out of 12 matches played in total - the lone win came against Australia in 2018. But in 2021 and 2022 combined, SatChi – as they are called in a few corners of the badminton circles now – have won 10 out the 11 MD1 matches they have played. The only defeat so far has come against the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games champions at the 2022 edition.
“The most heartening aspect of India’s Thomas Cup team today was watching Chirag Shetty-Satwiksairaj Rankireddy beat Mohammad Ahsan-Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo,” Pullela Gopichand told The Indian Express.
The stats show how big a turnaround it is for a country that has simply not produced such consistent results at the highest level in men’s doubles in the modern history of the game. History will tell you that there have been many talented male doubles players in the past. But in terms of achieving what they already have in their young careers, Satwik-Chirag are simply a cut above.
India's doubles record at the Thomas Cup
|Thomas Cup||Doubles played / won||MD1 played / won|
|2010||1 / 5||0 / 3|
|2014||1 / 6||0 / 3|
|2016||0 / 6||0 / 3|
|2018||2 / 6||1 / 3||Arjun/Shlok vs Australia was the sole MD1 win|
|2020 (in 2021)||6 / 8||4 / 4||All 4 MD1 matches won by SatChi|
|2022||7 / 11||5 / 6||5 out of 6 MD1 matches won by SatChi|
Also watching on from Dallas was Shlok Ramchandran, a former Indian doubles player.
“I’ve got a long history with both of them,” Shlok told Scroll.in from United States, adding it was one of the happiest days of his life as just someone part of the Indian badminton community. “I’ve known Chirag since we were seven or eight, we started at the same club, same school, same coaches. And Satwik was my roommate for a couple of years. There is no doubt about it that they are world class. And they have done it time and again. When you watch doubles matches, sometimes you just have a hunch irrespective of scoreline that one pair will win. I get that feeling with Satwik-Chirag almost all the time. Even in the second game [in the final], I thought nikal jaayega yeh match.”
“To see them be one of the architects of India’s win is an unbelievable feeling. They kept finding a way. Even against Malaysia in the quarters, Denmark in the semi-final. They are like ice and fire right now... the fire and aggression of Chirag, and Satwik’s composure. And I actually believe that Satwik is one of the best young shuttlers right now in the world under pressure, along with An Seyoung,” Shlok said.
A look at the moment when India saved those match points to win the second game tells you exactly that. While Chirag was bustling with raw aggression, Satwik calmly walked to the kits as the two regathered to begin the third game. Fire and ice, indeed.
“And Satwik has this confidence that he can beat anyone in world and that he is not an underdog. That is something I had seen as early as 2017 at Sudirman Cup. He told me ‘bhaiya I believe we can beat Tontowi Ahmad [Olympic mixed doubles champion],’ and the next day he went out with Ashwini and defeated the Indonesians,” Shlok added.
A journey together
A few years back, when Satwik-Chirag broke onto the scene they were all about the attacking game. Satwik’s smashes got the world talking, Chirag was brilliant at the net in finding angles. But as it happens to the best in any sport, that put a target on the Indians’ back.
As Shlok puts it, every High Performance Center across the badminton circuit is now trying to think of ways to stop the Indians. That meant that wins are harder to come by, as they found in the phase leading up to Thomas Cup. After winning the India Open to start the year, the results had dried up a bit, not helped by the fact they had to wait for the appointment of a new coach.
But with Mathias Boe, the former Danish Olympic silver-medal winning doubles star, who worked with them in the lead-up to the Olympics, returning to coaching duties, the confidence too seemed to have returned in Bangkok. More importantly, they continue to make improvements in their defensive game.
“When they started off, they were mostly all-out attacking players,” Shlok explained. “What happens is that players from defensive position are then trying to play a much more riskier shot just to not give them the chance to attack. That makes a huge difference psychologically.
“Players sometimes are scared to lift and then play the no-lob game, try to play closer to the net. The best pairs in the world, they would play no-lob. So all that has meant that both their net games have also improved a lot, that is why they are winning right now. Tan Kim Her played a role in that but especially after Boe came, because he was such a good net player, they are finding great angles now.”
It is something that stood out in the India Open final too, as Satwik-Chirag defeated their idols Ahsan-Setiawan to win the title.
With all that has already been said about how good the team spirit was in the camp from the build-up to end of the tournament, Ramcharan and Shlok were both full of praise for coach Vijaydeep Singh as well, who has been in the national doubles set-up for a long time.
While Shlok said that his contributions have always gone under the radar, Ramcharan said Vijaydeep’s presence in Bangkok played a massive role off the court. After the Denmark semifinal, late in the night when the players were hungry and craved some Indian food, Vijaydeep (who had also been cooking a few meals) arranged for rotis and dal through his relatives in Bangkok. The little things that matter.
While the team atmosphere at events like Thomas Cup is something unique and happens only once in a while, for a good doubles pair, it is an everyday need. Speak to any coach, or athlete playing doubles, they will tell you the importance of chemistry between a pair if you need consistent, good results at the highest level.
“Off court they complement each other so well,” Ramcharan said. “Obviously Chirag is the senior, so Satwik lets him take the decisions. They are like family now, but also a work in progress. Each of them knows how to compromise, they adjust well. It is very easy to get disturbed when they lose, so many people say things. Their bonding is so great that they don’t entertain rumours, they enjoy their company with each other especially.”
“It is so easy to sometimes show frustration on your partner and I’ve been extremely guilty of that,” Shlok added. “But have you ever seen Chirag-Satwik being frustrated on court? They almost never get frustrated with each other. It’s almost like watching how Setiawan-Ahsan play. They are always supportive, even in training matches. I have never seen Satwik or Chirag lose their cool when they’re playing a junior, when they’re playing senior, when they’re playing mixed doubles. It is just a characteristic. And again it is easier said than done.”
Shlok also recalled the work Chirag put in during the lockdown period in 2020. With Boe in Mumbai, and Shlok too on his sabbatical, Chirag put in hours and hours of hard work into his fitness (getting trained over video calls) and also his net game. And he emerged out of that period without any international badminton, a few steps ahead of where he was before. For a guy who used to sneak in 10 extra minutes of sleep as a kid in the academy and then brush during the warm-up sessions, Shlok is amazed at the consummate professional that Chirag has become. A complete turnaround, he said.
India at Thomas Cup Finals since 2010
|Edition||MD1 Matches played||MD1 Win %||Total singles played||Singles Win %|
While India have always had players who could win a singles match here or there at the Thomas Cup, as the ‘win %’ in the table above shows, they have simply never had the truly world class quality in doubles until Satwik-Chirag came along. Even in the 2021 edition of the tournament, when the overall results were nothing to write home about, Satwik-Chirag won all four of the matches they played, including wins against China and Denmark.
For these reasons, Shlok doesn’t have any doubt in his mind that Satwik-Chirag will be consistently in the top five in the world if they can remain injury free and get a dedicated team to look after them really well in terms of their nutrition, conditioning etc.
The real significance of the SatChi factor, however, is what it means to doubles badminton in the country.
“Right now they are the crown jewels of Indian badminton,” Shlok said.
“What they are doing for Indian men’s doubles... a lot of kids will look up to them, taking up doubles at 14-15 which was not the case in the past. Somebody has to start it, right? Saina started it with women’s singles, then Sindhu came along. Prakash sir, Gopi sir started it for men’s singles, Srikanth continued it. Jwala-Ashwini and Diju-Jwala to a certain level in women and mixed doubles.
“But we didn’t have somebody like Chirag-Satwik in men’s doubles. Now if there are U16, U17 shuttlers thinking about whether to go to singles or doubles, they can see what these two are doing at the biggest level. Every doubles powerhouse in the world identifies pairs young. This current lot in India did that, by turning to doubles around 15-16. A batch earlier and for me, it happened around 18-19. These two years in foundation as a pair makes a huge difference technically.”
The importance of role models, knowing that a path that can lead them to success, is incredibly significant for sustained success. In a situation where a few years back, there would have been hesitation in turning into doubles, now there would be none. Because SatChi have shown it can be done... Indian pairs can indeed go toe-to-toe with the very best in the world and not just be good but become capable of winning at the World Championships.
As Shlok put it, “When, say, a 9-10 year-old girl picks up a racket now, what will she say? She wants to be like Sindhu. So when kids now pick up rackets and you ask ‘Who do you want to be like?’, they can say Satwik-Chirag in doubles. That makes the big difference.”
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