Satwiksairaj Rankireddy told Scroll in a December 2021 interview that he had a dream. Of winning titles everywhere. Of not just playing good matches, but going the distance in tournaments. Fast forward a year and a few months, Satwik and Chirag Shetty have won men’s doubles titles at India Open, French Open and Swiss Open on the BWF World Tour. They have become the first Indian men’s doubles pair to win a Commonwealth Games gold, and a World Championships bronze. Most significantly, they have played a starring role in India’s first-ever team World Championships gold at the Thomas Cup in Bangkok.
Just under a year from that massive team triumph, Satwik-Chirag registered arguably their biggest individual title. In Dubai, they went on to become the first Indian men’s doubles pair ever to be crowned Asian Champions. The Asia Championships is one of the toughest events on the calendar and even in this memorable era for Indian badminton, no one had come close to winning the title.
The moment Satwik-Chirag completed a superb win in the final, with a fantastic comeback from the brink against Ong Yew Sin / Teo Ee Yii, the camera caught their coach Mathias Boe in the background. The Dane was pumped, and soaked in the triumph with a chainsaw celebration that cricket fans will somewhat recognise from the likes of Brett Lee and Dale Steyn. It was an immediate outburst of joy at overseeing a significant moment in Satwik-Chirag’s career.
Boe, the 42-year-old, is a former Olympic silver medallist and reached the top of world rankings with Carsten Mogensen. A feisty left-hander, Boe was active on the circuit till early 2021 and has seen it all in men’s doubles. And since joining up with Satwik-Chirag before Tokyo Olympics in 2021 (first stint), he has been an integral part of the Indian duo’s rise as one of the pairs to watch out for in world badminton. Satwik, Chirag and doubles coach SR Arun Vishnu have all spoken about the impact the Dane has had on their game, making them tactically astute to go with their obviously enthralling attacking style.
In an interview with Scroll, Boe spoke about Satwik-Chirag’s historic Asian triumph, his own journey as a coach and more:
The first question I wanted to ask you was about that celebration at the end of the Asian Championships. That was quite something.
(Smiles) Yeah, even as a coach, you get emotional. I, of course, also put a lot of time and effort into the players. While we’re playing, it’s important for me to stay calm. So I don’t look like someone who’s about to either panic or celebrate too early. But then, of course, I play with a lot of passion when I played myself, and I try and bring in myself the same when I’m coaching. Obviously winning a championship for the boys, was not unexpected, but it’s still a really big thing. Of course, I’m happy when it happens.
Also prominent in those celebrations was that red-cover book of yours. We have seen it frequently, tell us a little about that.
It’s worth a lot of money (smiles). No, just kidding. I note down things when when we play against players. We do video analysis for all matches, and if there is some small key notes that I think that I need to note down, I’m doing it in that book. I like to actually keep it in the book, it’s also easier than sitting with a laptop. I have notes on my laptop also but it’s easy just to recall, than to check online when we played this pair the last time if I can’t remember. And then just look up under the tournament then in my book, see if there is something that I missed in the new video analysis.
And also sometimes in the matches, I note down a few things if there’s something that I didn’t realise doing video analysis or they have changed something since then, or whatever it can be, then sometimes I’m taking small notes just to to have some key points on what to what to tell the players.
I’m actually sure that it is worth a lot of money, now that you mention it. Is it open for Satwik-Chirag or your eyes only?
No, actually, most of it will be in Danish because it’s just my notes. Since Danish is my first language, so it’s easier for me just to take the notes and then explain it in English.
Then if the book got stolen, also less people would be able to decode it (laughs).
On a more serious note. The comeback in the Malaysian Open quarterfinal earlier this year, from a nearly identical situation with a game down and big margin down... then to turn that around, how important was it for the Asian title in Dubai?
It’s always important because obviously if they just give up and say ‘okay, it’s not our day, there’s a tournament next week’... then, first of all you don’t bring that passion, that heart out as I talked about earlier. Now we’ve seen it twice that that we were down and out by far... already almost at the airport in both matches... but you know, just keep trying, have that mentality instead of giving up. Maybe just a little bit be more relaxed and say ‘okay, so let’s just like play our best and see what happens.’ And then sometimes you win these matches.
Obviously still, not many out of 10 you will win, but if you can try and keep pushing, then sometimes you get up and get close, and then you lose and then it hurts a little bit more, but stealing these victories as we have done a few times, it’s good. And if we were just giving in and said in the final here in Dubai also that ‘okay, we’re down 15-9, it’s not our day, we’re not playing well, it was a missed opportunity’ then of course, we wouldn’t have won. So yeah, it’s these really delightful wins where we’re down and out, but come back and win, that are really important.
I’ve talked a lot with them about this because I’ve done that quite a few times in my career. I’ve also been leading quite a few times and threw the victory but we also came back. We did that at the All England final in 2011, where we were 11-16 down in third set. So I know that it’s possible but of course it’s good for them to see it to believe it in some ways. Now they know it’s possible.
What turned it around in the final at the Asian Championships when Satwik-Chirag were trailing by a game and 7-13?
When we start turning around, we had that little bit more relaxed attitude saying ‘okay, right, you don’t have anything to lose from here’. Then we actually started to do the things that we were supposed to do from 0-0. Catch some third shots, move the feet, to not just play one stroke and stand still, but just keep moving and get the shuttle under the tape. Chirag caught three or four third-shots, as it’s called, after the service and got it under the tape and then it was fairly simple. They didn’t panic and just played, they actually used their brain instead of just their arm. Then they’re very difficult to play against. Because Satwik obviously has that power and Chirag has the speed, and also the power. So if we can get that initiative out of the service situation, it’s very difficult to control them. Then they can, actually against all pairs in the world, score 10 points in a row without it being a huge surprise. But they need to be there where they really think and instead of just going ‘okay, we can outplay them because we’re quick on the rackets.’
We saw that the Malaysians are smarter... if we just play no-brain game and stand a little still and just want to wrestle with them, then Teo, he’s too intelligent, too smart a player and then it doesn’t really matter that Chirag is faster. Because he’s just standing where the shots are coming. It’s a little bit the same with with Ong and Satwik. Satwik has more power but if he’s not moving as well as Ong then the power doesn’t really matter. So these multiple factors, they do make a change.
In terms of their evolution as a pair, would you say that’s the biggest change, in terms of adapting their gamestyles and that rotation between front-court and back-court?
Maybe, I mean badminton is too complex just to have a back-court player and a front-court player. And if you have that situation where you only have one that smashes and one does not, then there’s a big chance that the shoulder will not last for a long time if you only have one. So you need to be more diverse. You need to be able to mix it up. It’s also too easy for the opponents if they just have one at the net that they know can’t do anything at the net, and they have one of the backcourt that can’t smash it all. So developing their primarily skills is important, but developing their not-so-strong sides is also key.
I think they have developed in a lot of ways. I think they play smarter. Satwik, he plays way smarter and some of the tactical things that we implement and the things we have to do, he’s really good at carrying it out. Chirag, he’s just developed his speed very well and also his ability to read the game. He still needs to, sometimes, stay a little calm and just like instead of doing something fast and furious, need to slow it down a little bit. And then think a little bit more. While Satwik, he has become really good at that, but he needs to move even quicker and be able to be even lighter on his feet. So these things are something that we have worked a lot on and I think that when we play with tactics and we play with the power and the speed we have it’s very difficult for anyone to beat us.
You and Carsten have indeed played against Satwik-Chirag too, late in your careers and early in theirs. What stood out for you when you faced them from the other side of the net?
I know them a little bit better because I played against them. But I think I just know all the pairs well because this is what I’ve done my entire life. Nobody has breathed men’s doubles badminton over the last 20 years as I have.
(About their game) They have a really, really good attack, almost impossible to do anything when they have an attacking position. It’s something that distresses you as an opponent, that you know you cannot just lift it and get out of trouble, because they hit so hard and are so quick at the net. They haven an outrageous pace they can play in and this outrageous power they have, it stresses the opponent. So I felt exactly like that when playing against them. But I think that was clear to most of people.
What excites you the most about these two, in terms of where they are right now? And where they could go?
Where can they go? Well, they can go all the way if they’re not there already. I mean, they’re one of the pairs that that can win all tournaments, one of the pairs that all experts are looking at. For us of course, it’s still important that we keep developing, we keep staying hungry, we want to win more titles, we want to work hard, we want to raise the bar in every session, and not like just sit back and get lazy.
Right now, we are also in a good place. I mean, winning some tournaments, being there maybe not the biggest favourite to win all tournaments, but we definitely know we can. They got the confidence, they also stay humble, they know they need to work hard. Yeah, we are hungry for more, we are hungry to win all matches that we play and we get annoyed if we don’t, then we go home and work harder.
In terms of your coaching career itself, you always knew you wanted to be a coach?
Absolutely not (smiles). I did not expect that I would be doing coaching after my career finished because as I said, I have spent so many years and so many hours in different badminton halls, so I thought I had enough of it. But you know, then somewhere when I wasn’t a part of it, you still miss being on circuit, miss the players, miss... being like really good at something maybe. I feel also that especially, with Satwik-Chirag and Indian players in general, this is one of the places that I could see myself too, because they have a potential of really reaching the top and winning some of these tournaments that we fortunately also have done already. But in my personal life it also fits fine with me being in this region of the world. A combination of factors that worked out well as a perfect storm.
How did this come about for the first time? Could you just recollect that a little bit, if you can.
I think at that time, they didn’t have a coach. I think coach Tan had already left India, just then I was in talks with Chirag when I was in Mumbai. I’ve also been in contact and practising with him. So then I think I was there one day, and we did a session together, and then I said something like, ‘Okay, if you can’t find anyone else, we can try and see if we can do something before the Olympics’. So, I’ll help you out there. And then yes, SAI and BAI, they were like, pretty quick on the trigger. It started like that. As I said, I didn’t know with the coaching thing, so I couldn’t promise much. So I just said until the Olympics, then we will see. Then after the Olympics, it took a little while, and they were kind of trying to get a new coach that could be there full time. That didn’t work out. Then they called me and asked if I could come by again.
Are you surprised yourself a little bit with how good you are at coaching given that you didn’t want that in the first place?
(Smiles) I don’t think I’m the right person to answer that. Some things, I’m probably good at but there’s also a lot of other things that I can improve, you know. I’m also always evaluating my own performance. Am I a little bit too impatient? What can I do better? So of course I can also develop a lot as a coach and as a human also. But yeah, I’m happy that I’ve helped them, I’m happy that they see me as an asset. So I’ll keep working on that and then I’ll try and win more titles for India.
I can tell you this much. You have a big fan following in India right now just for your coaching. Just a word about the rest of the people that you’re working with. Gayatri-Treesa are improving all the time, there’s Dhruv-Arjun...
It’s a little about the focus [when it comes to widening the doubles pool]. The singles players, they have a tendency of stealing the limelight (smiles). But it’s a natural thing, it’s been also the case throughout my career, not many doubles players have outgrown singles players. A few cases maybe, Lee Yong Dae in South Korea and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo in Indonesia, and so on. But overall, it’s always the singles players that are the biggest stars. Obviously, India has always been best in singles, or at least for the last 15 years, with Saina, Sindhu, Srikanth and Prannoy.
I can’t see one reason why Indians should not be able to play doubles. It’s about having that pair or pairs that can just lead from the front so everyone else can see how it’s definitely possible. And it’s also possible to make a good living from playing doubles, that you don’t have to be Sindhu to make a living out of it. It’s good to be Satwik and Chirag also and make a very good living from it. As soon as you see that as possible, that is evolution.
With Gaya and Teresa, with Arjun and Dhruv, they can see that it’s possible to do, so why not, just stay focused, work hard and just you know, take a small step at a time.
And the girls, they work hard. They don’t say much else than ‘okay coach!’ but at least they’re not saying ‘No, coach’. So that is a positive in that age. Reaching semifinals at the All England back to back, that is not easy. Especially when you’re 19 and 20 years old. We go a little slow with them. They work really hard. They practice really hard, but they’re still young, they still need to mature a little bit. Now that the expectations might start to come with them, but it’s still a little bit too early. Of course like many other players, they definitely have the potential to go all the way.
So, one last thing, when are Satwik-Chirag defeating Chia-Soh and Minions?
Yeah, hopefully, soon. It’s a mental game. If you feel comfortable playing some, you play better. If you feel not comfortable playing some others, then it’s more difficult. I don’t see a reason why we shouldn’t be able to beat them. So, hopefully soon.
The SatChi Factor: Satwiksairaj and Chirag Shetty’s immense importance in Indian badminton
In memorable 2022, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty get busy on path to stardom