The 2017 badminton world championships begin on Monday in Glasgow, where all of India’s focus will be on the singles contingent. There are four Indians in both the men’s and women’s singles draws, spearheaded by Olympic medallists PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal, and world No 8 Kidambi Srikanth.
However, India also has a significant representation in the doubles, with three pairs each in the men’s, women’s and mixed draws. Among the brightest prospects in India’s doubles contingent is a tall, muscular teenager from the tiny town of Amalapuram in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh.
Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who turned 17 only on Sunday, first rose to prominence after winning the Tata Open India International Challenge last year along with his doubles partner Chirag Shetty. He then played a crucial role in India’s Sudirman Cup campaign earlier this year, where the team reached the quarter-finals.
Satwik partnered with veteran Ashwini Ponappa in the mixed doubles to put up a performance to remember, with an upset win over the experienced Indonesian duo of Tontowi Ahmad and Gloria Emanuelle Widjaja, before losing to the world No 2 pair of Lu Kai and Huang Yaqiong in the quarters in three games.
Smash, smash, smash
In a country where doubles badminton hardly gets any attention, Satwik has always preferred sharing court space. This is partly because when he started playing badminton, he never got to play by himself on his side of the court.
When Satwik was six, he started accompanying his father, a coach and referee, to the Amalapuram badminton stadium. “There weren’t enough courts and there were 30-40 members, so we used to play only doubles on the courts,” he said. “That’s why my strokes are all doubles strokes. I used to only smash, smash, smash.”
To say Satwik loves to smash would be an understatement. Armed with an attacking mindset and a powerful smash, he’s got the physique to be a real bully on the court. But along with brawn, Satwik believes you “need more brains” to play doubles compared to singles. “It is tougher to play doubles because there needs to be a good understanding between partners, good communication and the right mindset,” he said.
“In singles you play alone, but in doubles if your partner is not feeling good you will lose the match. Doubles is also a faster game and you need to play more rallies, more smashes. You need more brains and it’s a mind-game,” he added.
Choosing the right partner is also extremely important, as Satwik would find out 18 months ago. Prior to 2016, he used to play with his good friend Krishna Prasad, who also trains at Indian national coach Pullela Gopichand’s academy along with him. However, their partnership was broken by India’s doubles coach, Tan Kim Her.
After a few days of observation, the decision was simple for Tan, a doubles specialist who has earlier worked with Malaysia, England and Korea. “When I first saw Satwik and Chirag around 18 months ago, I saw that they have a good height, good skills, good speed, good attack. That’s the reason I put them together,” he said.
The decision initially did not go down too well with Satwik. “At the beginning, I thought what is it with this coach? He’s not good, he’s changing partners. Krishna and I were playing well at that time. We were winning tournaments. So when he separated us, we were not happy. But now I have realised that Chirag and I make very good partners.”
Indian players don’t have a good sense of choosing their doubles partners, according to Tan. “They only think about domestic, all-India level, never international. Before I was here, Indian players selected their own partners. But since I have come, I have explained to them that with my coaching experience, I know which player combines with which player. After pairing Satwik and Chirag, they started showing results. I tried to teach them to be more patient, to read the game, find out their strengths and weaknesses. Now, everything is going very well. I guarantee they can be world beaters.”
Lack of doubles role models
Satwik and Chirag won the Vietnam International Challenge in March this year, but have failed to get past the round of 16 in all other tournaments. One of the reasons why Indian doubles players have not yet reached the same level as the singles, according to Satwik, is that there aren’t many role models to look up to.
“In singles, we had Gopi Sir and Prakash [Padukone] Sir, both All England champs. We have had good doubles players like Jwala [Gutta] didi but they used to reach only up to a certain level. But now slowly people are reaching world rankings of 10-15 in doubles. Tan Sir is trying his level best to get the doubles players up there. Right now we don’t have so much experience so it will take some time. It will take maybe a year – not very long.”
For the world championships, Satwik and Chirag’s aim is to give their 100% in every game and not worry about the results. “It’s our first world championships so we are very excited to play,” Satwik said. “The first round itself is going to be tough, against a Japanese pair [of Hiroyuki Endo and Yuta Watanabe]. If we win that, we could face the Olympic champion [Zhang Nan and partner Liu Cheng]. It’s a tough draw but we will try to win.”
In mixed doubles, where Satwik is paired with world No 77 K Maneesha, the draw “is a little easier”, he said. The preparations have been going on in full swing ahead of the team’s departure on Friday.
“We are not getting rest even on Sunday,” the men’s doubles world No 38 said. “We are focusing more on the physical part, like running. Chirag and I are also concentrating on our net play since we both are back-court players. Both of us like to play from the back and smash, and initially none of us wanted to play from the front. But we talked with Tan Sir and practised and we are playing well together now. Chirag will play in the front 75% of the time.”
Satwik believes doubles badminton is not appreciated so much in India because there are no results on the world circuit. “In singles, we are getting better results, Indians are reaching semi-finals, finals, winning titles. But in doubles we are losing in the first round or the second round.”
In 2017, Indians have won a total of 17 singles titles, including four Superseries and five Grand Prix Gold tournaments. Indians have also won nine doubles titles but only one of them is a GPG. The rest are all lower tiered events.
While the world championships may be a bit too early to change that, with young players like Satwik coming through, there is no reason why India can’t expect a medal or two from its doubles players at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. “Look at how Satwik played in the Sudirman Cup,” said Tan. “Imagine what he can do in the next one-and-a-half-years.”