Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy’s brother Ramcharan dug up a photograph from years ago. Of a young Satwik with their mother, wearing a t-shirt with Tokyo written on it. His brother wanted to use that photo if or when Satwik, and Chirag Shetty reached the podium at the Olympic Games. As things would pan out, in a group of seriously high quality, the Indian youngsters would have to return home after the group stage despite losing only to the world No 1 pair. They had even defeated the soon-to-be Olympic champions in three thrilling games. It was a solid performance by the debutants, but a place on the podium wasn’t to be.

But one year later, that photo would come in handy. Ramcharan Rankireddy will get to make his collage with the photo of a young Satwik wearing a Tokyo shirt alongside Satwik-Chirag standing on the podium in Tokyo... this time as the bronze medallists at the World Championships, the first ever men’s doubles pair from India to achieve the feat.

Young Satwik with his mother | Photo courtesy: Ramcharan Rankireddy

That one-year journey, from Tokyo to Tokyo, from the heartache at the Olympics to the delight at the World Championships, saw Chirag and Satwik – as they are known more commonly in badminton circles – make a number of sacrifices and find a steely resolve within themselves.

“At the Tokyo Olympics, we were unlucky to go the way we did. It was quite heartbreaking,” Chirag told Scroll.in in an interview, looking back at that moment.

“Working with Mathias [Boe] from April this year has really helped us. We didn’t have a coach for about six-seven months after the Olympics and were sort of struggling, as in we weren’t able to get the results we wanted. At the 2021 World Championships too, we lost in the pre-quarterfinals and that was quite disappointing. So when we got Mathias back in the setup in April, it worked really well for us.”

While giving the former Danish international a lot of credit, Chirag also confirmed to Scroll.in that Mathias Boe is set to be with them till Paris 2024 Olympics. As per a report in Sportstar, the Badminton Association of India is also looking to hire someone in addition to Boe, who has been guiding most of the top doubles pair when on tour, to take care of the widening pool.

Satwik added that the Tokyo Olympics exit was a turning point for them, where they decided to make a crucial change in their approach for the 2022 season.

“After the Tokyo Olympics, our performances weren’t up to the mark,” Satwik told Scroll.in. “And then after an okay-ish performance at the 2021 World Championships, we were determined to get as many podium finishes as possible in 2022. So Chirag and I decided to focus on playing quality tournaments and winning most of them.”

This determination to turn things around led to Satwik and Chirag having the finest season so far in their careers.

A memorable 2022

They began 2022 by winning the India Open Super 500 title. They played a key role in India’s historic Thomas Cup triumph. They won the gold medal at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, another first for Indian badminton. The historic Worlds bronze in Tokyo, of course. They then won the French Open, which was the first Super 750 title of their career. And finally, they achieved the goal they had set for themselves last year – reaching the top 5 in the rankings.

It was one impressive achievement after another, and with each one, they were entering uncharted territory for Indian men’s doubles. It was a season that will surely be spoken about for years to come.

“Through this one year, from Tokyo to Tokyo, they have gotten so much better,” Aparna Popat, former national champion and four-time CWG medallist, told Scroll.in.

Popat, who had recalled last year how puzzled she was at their Olympics heartbreak, was there at the venue for the World Championships as a commentator for BWF.

“From a pair that was out to prove themselves, which was the case at the Olympics, to a pair that seem like they belong here at the top. Dark horses, underdogs... all that is gone,” Popat said of watching them create history from close quarters.

“For me, that was the biggest change I saw when they won the World Championships bronze in Tokyo. The way they were playing, the attitude... they were very comfortable with the balance of hunger and being self-assured. They struck the right balance between aggression and calm,” she added.

“Even after assuring the medal [at Tokyo Worlds], they said the tournament wasn’t over for them. To make that statement in itself, they were looking all the way. They weren’t restricting themselves. This reflected on the court, their presence on the court was different and for me that is a big distinction and that shows how good they have become.”

The importance of Boe

For Satwik-Chirag, having former Olympic and Worlds medallist Boe guiding them has been critical. The Dane was their coach for a few months before the Tokyo Olympics before returning to the job in April 2022. Since then, the trio has worked extensively on a particular aspect of the game and the results have been there for all to see.

“Initially when Mathias came in before the Olympics, it took some time for us to get used to his training methods because his style of play was completely different to ours,” said Chirag.

“Also, we hardly played any tournaments in that period and the Olympics came soon after. So from April to July, we just trained with him. At that time, if he had continued as our coach for a couple of months more, maybe we would have won a few titles then and there itself. Anyway, when he rejoined us, we were already well aware of his training style, it was much easier to gel in, and the results were quick to follow. The one thing we’ve really worked on with him is our defence. From just retrieving, I think we’ve been able to be steady in our defence. I think that has definitely made a difference and helped us in those crucial matches.”

Former India player and doubles coach SR Arun Vishnu has also seen the rise of Satwik-Chirag from close quarters. He was with Boe on the coaching chair in Tokyo this year as the Indian duo won bronze and in assessing their rise, he repeated a few times how important Boe’s planning has been. He is convinced that big things await the Indian duo if they keep at it.

“When they [Satwik-Chirag] were partnered at the start under coach Tan, the first two years at the Superseries level they mostly just won one or two rounds,” Arun Vishnu recalled to Scroll.in. “Then from the third year, they started going a step further to quarterfinals. Their progress has been steady. Now where they stand is that they can play top eight or top four consistently. At the big events, they now have a very good chance of winning medals. It won’t be very far that we can see them potentially at world No 1. That’s what we all expect of them.”

An increasingly wide open field

If one looks at the overall badminton tour over the past year, men’s doubles has perhaps been the most unpredictable section. No pair in particular has won tournaments consistently and it’s been hard to decipher what classifies as an upset. It has made for an excitingly open field. And Satwik-Chirag know that for them to keep progressing, they need to have all bases covered at all times.

“Compared to earlier, the competition now is really tough,” said Satwik. “Anyone can beat anyone and there is no top one or two. It depends on the day, how consistently you’re playing and how badly you want to win. If you look at 2022, not just the top seeds, a lot of other pairs won tournaments too.

“When you look at results five years ago, China used to dominate and then Indonesia but now there are a lot of other pairs doing well. Like Malaysia’s Chia-Soh weren’t the favoutites and won the World Championships out of nowhere. Even at the Olympics, no one expected Chinese Taipei to win gold but they did. So the competition is very high these days and there are a lot of tournaments back-to-back. The fitter you are, the more there will be chances of succeeding. Mentally, too, you need to be ready to play consistently. I feel it’s going to be a tough, tough year in men’s doubles.”

As is the case in all of elite sport, the outcome of a contest often comes down to fine margins. In badminton, it can only take a few minutes for the momentum to swing. Scores remain level deep in the deciding game and in such moments, the players that have the mental edge tend to come through.

A mental edge

With men’s doubles being as competitive as it is, Satwik-Chirag have been putting in the effort to become stronger mentally as well.

“Any of the top 25 pairs can beat the others because the competition is a lot more open than it was a few years ago. So having that mental edge is extremely important,” said Chirag. “Satwik and I have been working with our psychologist for the past couple of months now. In fact, I’ve been working with mine since about six months, and it has definitely helped me get certain barriers out of the way.

“Especially at the Thomas Cup, I was quite low after the group stage loss to Chinese Taipei. After discussing things with my psychologist, I felt a lot better and from thereon things changed completely and we went on to win the title. All the players know how to hit a smash, play a drop shot, or defend, so it’s all about knowing which stroke to play when. You need to be extremely tough mentally to win those major titles.”

Popat reckoned that this has been one of the standout aspects of the Indians’ game this year.

“In a doubles match, things happen so quickly,” she said. “It’s really about whether you can play the right shot at the right moment. And that Satwik-Chirag have hit this particular level of play is important. It’s not like a flash in the pan. Beyond just results, look at their level of play. They have a balance on court, clarity in mindset that really stands out.”

Arun Vishnu, from the vantage point of the coaches’ chair at the last two World Championships, said there is a certain calmness even in the chaotic world of men’s doubles badminton.

“They played really well against the world champions in the quarterfinals [at Tokyo 2022],” the coach said. “Before what used to happen was they would get a little excited at the end of games, but their experience is now such that they play well till the end. When I sat behind them at the last World Championships, they got really excited and sometimes a bit hyper. But this year, sitting behind them, they were much more calmer. They have found that calmness in their game.”

SatChi celebrate at CWG 2022 | PTI

More to come

There is every reason to believe that Chirag, 25, and Satwik, 22, have a long way to go. In fact, in many ways, 2022 seemed like the start of their journey, where they fought for the biggest titles consistently. After a stellar year, they have their sights set on the next set of targets. With the Asian Games scheduled in 2023 and the Olympic qualification beginning in May, the duo is determined to keep pushing boundaries.

But the many years on tour already, with all the learnings from heartbreaks and confidence from victories, have given perspective to Satwik-Chirag.

“This is the thing I was thinking about while practising in the morning – what’s next for us? Everything seems to be there game-wise, so what can be done to get into the top 3? I guess a lot of it comes down to taking care of our bodies too,” Satwik said.

“Because we both are tall and get many little injuries, and it takes time to get back the rhythm. So I feel we should focus more on our bodies than the on-court things.

“Especially for me, I should take more care, because I can play my game if I’m really fit. It doesn’t matter if I take a break for a month or two, my game is always there. I just need a few hours to get back the rhythm. But when my body isn’t well, I can’t move and give my 100 percent, and we struggle to win matches and beat the top pairs. So yeah, that’s the thing I was realising. We have to take care of our bodies and peak at the right time, considering the Olympics. We want to be consistent and hopefully, there will be even better results in 2023,” he said.

When 2022 started, it felt like Satwik-Chirag faced an important year ahead of them. Their promise had been well established, but it was now time to start converting that into tangible success, because elite sport is often ruthless and success drives success. From winning the India Open (a tournament they were considering withdrawing from) by beating their idols Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan, the duo started the year on a positive note. It was a rollercoaster at times after that but there is no doubt that their immense confidence saw them hit high notes consistently. The epic Thomas Cup triumph was a big boost and indeed, to win a team World Championships is near impossible without an elite doubles pair. Historic medals at CWG and World Championships were then rewards for building on the success in Bangkok.

But finally, let’s just dwell on the French Open title for a bit... that success came at a tournament where they have enjoyed some memorable results, in a city which they consider one of their favourite places to visit. With 2022, Tokyo is in the rearview mirror. On their path to achieving greatness, it’s all eyes on Paris now.