What does it take to be world class in any sport? The answer is not always straight-forward. If it were, everyone would be world-class and then perhaps, no one would be. Sure, you need the talent. That’s the basic building block. But there are then many tangibles and intangibles that go into completing the set. One of those intangibles that athletes and coaches often speak about is hunger. The desire to be good, not just on the one-off occasion, but over days and weeks and months, and sometimes, years.
On their way to the Indonesia Open Super 1000 title in Jakarta, India’s men’s doubles pairing of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty revealed something about their recent form. Over the past week, in multiple post-match interactions, the pair – who have already achieved plenty in their young international careers – spoke about not having the best time on tour coming into this prestigious tournament, the year’s third Super 1000 category event.
But on Sunday, rediscovering their best form and reiterating their status as one of the best pairs in the world at the moment, Satwik and Chirag defeated their nemesis and reigning World Champions, Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik in straight games 21-17, 21-18 to add a Super 1000 to their burgeoning collection of medals.
“We didn’t really have time after the Asian Championships that we won,” Chirag had said after beating the top seeds and local favourites Fajar Alfian and Muhammad Rian Ardianto in front of a roaring Istora Senayan. “We didn’t play well at the Sudirman Cup, the Thailand Open and the Singapore Open. That was the lowest low we could’ve gone.”
It was an interesting revelation. Make no mistake, the path to the top of the podium wasn’t easy. They faced a tricky Chinese pair (world No 14) in the second round, the world No 1s and home favourites in the quarter-finals, one of the most in-form pairs on the tour in the semi-finals, and in the final, a pair they had never beaten before. And through it all, it was apparent that they were driven to succeed this week and not just win, but dominate as they can with their attacking game.
But here’s the thing. By now it is well established that, on their day, the Indian pair can beat (almost) anyone on the tour. Men’s doubles in itself is very wide open at the moment, and Chirag-Satwik have registered memorable wins already to know that many of these wins weren’t beyond them, game-wise.
So what was impressive beyond these match results was the fact that a minor blip on the circuit hurt Chirag and Satwik enough to force them to find their hunger, have conversations with their coach to find out where they were going wrong, and bounce back strongly. For a pair that already won a massive title this year at Asian Championships (the first ever Indians to do so), it was understandable perhaps to let their guards down a little bit. But Chirag and Satwik course corrected quickly, to add another major feather to their cap.
That is part of the intangible that so often differentiates the good from the great. “It’s always (up to) an athlete to find that right momentum and being hungry and not being full,” their coach Mathias Boe told Scroll from Jakarta on Sunday.
“After the Asia Championships they were a little bit full and a little relaxed going into the Sudirman Cup, coming into the Thailand Open and the same with Singapore. If we don’t put in 100% effort into it, the result is also that way. That’s what we saw in the last few tournaments. They were a little bit down, which is fully natural. As an athlete you can’t be at your 100% all the time.
“But we had some good conversation about that in Thailand and Singapore. Try to stay humble and try to stay hungry and we will progress. Take one match and one rally at a time, but we need to play with our hearts and we need to go all out when we play. Otherwise we’re not better than the other teams,” Boe added.
Indeed, if you watched the semifinal against Kang Min Hyuk and Seo Seung Jae, that was Boe’s message after a sluggish start. He realised that the Indians were not moving at their best because they seemed a bit bogged down. The Dane, apart from a few tactical tweaks like opening up the play more, suggested to play with a smile on their face.
“They struggled a little bit in the semi-final, they couldn’t find their A-game all the way through,” Boe said. “But they managed to win. And that’s a strength, to win even when the A-game wasn’t there all the way through. It was like that in the quarterfinal against the world No 1, and against the Chinese day before and also today. It was not perfect, but it was really impressive.
“They found that momentum this week, tried to enjoy it, had a smile on their lips and they were focused on the process and the plan that was required to beat the Malaysians. That speaks for itself. Great performance by them, and I’m really proud of them.”
Breaking the streak against Chia-Soh
While finding that drive brought them to the final, it would take all the planning and execution to beat the world champions in the title clash. Chia and Soh have caused a fair few heartbreaks to the Indians in the past. They prevented Chirag and Satwik from entering the final at the 2022 World Championships. In fact, at the start of this low phase that the Indians spoke about, was a defeat at the Sudirman Cup group stage against the Malaysians, that took their head-to-head to 0-8.
Chirag said after the match that they were not holding back in their game plan and doubting themselves when things didn’t go their way. The start was sluggish and Indians trailed 3-7, but that is when Chia and Soh made a few errors. It was a lightbulb moment for Satwik, who knew now that on the other side of the net too were two nervous humans. Mind you, Chia and Soh had pressure on them too, as they are yet to win a World Tour title, despite the historic Worlds gold in Tokyo last year.
From there on, it was largely one-way traffic.
Using the full court was key for coach Boe. “Everyone knows that they have a really strong attack and can score points from the attack. But I feel today that we avoided these battles, these flat games and rallies where we just play on the racquet of Soh and Chia where they’re extremely strong,” the 42-year-old said.
“But we actually used the full court and when we were under pressure we lifted it high and we were standing ready in defence. We were showing them that we’re not going to give them easy points. They (Soh and Chia) felt that these guys (Satwik-Chirag) are not making that many mistakes. They maybe got a little stressed in that situation because that is not what has happened in the previous matches.
“We didn’t want to overdo and compensate for not getting it down and try playing even sharper, ending up on the racquet of the Malaysians. They’re just too good. But today our attitude was much better and we managed to use the full court and managed to use the defence. That gave a big morale boost and our offence was extremely strong. It was a big win and an even better performance today,” Boe added.
Wake-up call, dream win
After the final on Sunday, Satwik touched upon the bad month too and was very honest about it. “Really happy performance after a bad month. We became lazy I’d say, a bit passive, thought it was all under control. But it was a wake-up call for us, the last two tournaments,” the 22-year-old from Hyderabad told BWF.
“Be alert otherwise, we would be beaten in the first round only. We practiced a lot in Singapore, the focus was high. The coach was there all the time, the physios too worked day and night.”
Earlier in the week, Satwik had shed some light on the conversations he had as part of this wake-up call. “First time we had an open talk with the coach. What all we should change in our gameplan, what is working, what isn’t,” Satwik had said after the quarterfinal win. “I watched my old videos and realised I’m hiding and not taking my shuttles, that I’m waiting for Chirag to take shuttles. Now it’s more balanced, previously it was 70/30. And coach told us to show hunger, show the attitude of top players.”
The result of this recalibration was a victory they can savour. “Winning in Indonesia is really special,” Satwik said on Sunday. “It’s one of our dream tournaments. When we were starting, it was about at least getting an entry to play at Istora. From there, to now winning this tournament, it’s been a long journey.”
Indonesia Open was just another reminder of what they are capable of, on court when at their best. What it didn’t show us, on live streams and television channels, was that Chirag and Satwik have that special something... the desire to stay at the top, the willingness to first recognise and then bounce back from tough moments.
As Chirag said on Saturday, “As they say, your biggest victories come after your greatest losses.”
If it wasn’t clear enough in all the firsts they have achieved for Indian badminton, this week showed Satwik and Chirag have that special something in them. They just have... it.