When Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty failed to cross the first round of their first three international tournaments and more importantly struggled to play as a pair, they approached the coaching staff and hinted that they were probably good playing with their earlier partners only.
The Malaysian doubles coach Tan Kim Her reacted to the discussion by asking both the players to have at least one meal of the day, if not both, together. He also asked them to spend more time with each other outside the court and continue playing together for a few more months before taking a decision on their partnership.
The new system was a bit difficult to follow for both Rankireddy and Shetty. Rankireddy, hailing from the small town of Amalapuram in Andhra Pradesh, was till then used to only hanging around with his Telugu friends and eating only Indian food, while the Mumbai-born Shetty was a far more outgoing personality.
Explaining the teething problems they faced when they started to play together, Rankireddy said, “We also started staying in one room. Earlier we used to stay in different rooms. I used to go out with Telugu people a lot. Then I didn’t like to go out with North Indian guys. He used to eat everything, I used to eat only Indian food. So I used to go alone.”
He added, “Tan coach said that in Malaysia they do it this way. It is like the doubles players are like in a marriage.”
Rankireddy also said that understanding the partner is very important to succeed on the court. That understanding was visible in their Indonesia Masters quarter-final victory over Danish combination of Mads Conrad-Petersen and Mads Pieler Kolding to become the first Indian men’s doubles pair to reach a semi-final of a major international event.
Trailing 12-16 in the decider, Shetty simply started playing softer strokes to surprise the Danes and Rankireddy followed the pattern without a word exchanged between the two as they won five straight points to change the course of the match.
“It was at 17-16 that we first spoke about what was working for us,” said Shetty. “Till then we just played as it came,” he added. Shetty also admitted that they now spend almost the whole day together and enjoy each other’s company a lot.
Not an easy beginning
While there is little doubt that the decision to team up together two years ago was the best thing to happen for their careers, Rankireddy and Shetty admit that it was not easy to come to terms with the coach’s decision for the first six months or so.
“When we started playing, we were complaining about each other,” said Rankireddy. “Who will play in the front and who will play at the back. We were doubting the coach and why he has paired us. Because me and Krishna [Prasad Garaga] were playing good and he and [MR] Arjun were playing good. And we were looking to play well in future tournaments. But he came and changed our partners.”
Tan’s logic behind pairing the two youngsters was that both were attacking players with quality strokes and have the potential to make waves on the international circuit. He and even chief coach Pullela Gopichand had a lot of faith in the combination. They even picked them in the Thomas and Uber Cup qualifiers and a few other team events just for exposure.
But both Shetty and Satwik were predominantly back-court players then and would end up playing on adjacent courts in their first few tournaments. “Both of us used to just rush back after playing the shuttle at the net and that was a big problem,” said Shetty.
“But then the coach spoke to us and explained that Satwik has a very good back-court game and I should try and concentrate on improving my front-court game. Once we started doing that, results started to come,” added Shetty, who has been working a lot on his leg strength as he has to bend a lot in the forecourt due to his height.
Korean legend Lee Yong Dae also played an important role in helping Shetty improve his net game as the former Olympic gold medallist would give him multi shuttle drills during last season’s Premier Badminton League when both were part of the Mumbai team.
The other area they worked hard on in the last 12 months has been their defence and that began showing results in the second half of 2017 as they reached quarter-finals of two Superseries tournaments.
They then set a target of reaching the semi-final of a Level 4 and above tournament in 2018 and achieved that in their very first tournament, beating two top-10 pairs in the bargain.
The world No 32 combination, who lost to China’s Chai Biao and Wang Zekang in a thrilling second-round match at the India Open on Thursday, now want to consistently reach the business end of important tournaments. They feel that they will have to work on their mental preparations so that they are no overawed by the opponents or situations.
“I think we need some mental training on how to handle pressure,” said Rankireddy. “In Indonesia we were totally under pressure in the semi-final looking at the crowd and already thinking about playing the world No 1 pair. We were already demotivating ourselves.
“We didn’t play badly but made some silly mistakes. We also need to stop giving too much respect to the top players and believe that we can beat them,” added Rankireddy, who believes that the exposure of playing top doubles stars in the Premier Badminton League is helping him in handling such situations better.
Though Shetty didn’t get to play any matches in this edition of the PBL, he got to play a lot of practice games with the experienced Shin Baek Cheol and Kim Gi Jung.
“Quality sparring is one area that we doubles players struggle with in India,” said Rankireddy, pointing out that the top countries like Indonesia and Korea have a battery of players playing at the same level.
While there is not much that can be done to address the issue at this moment, their success on the international circuit has meant that the pair will now have a personal trainer working with them after next week’s Badminton Asia Team Championship.
“We spoke to the coaches on this as it will help us a lot to build strength and stamina to play at that level,” said Rankireddy, who also plays mixed doubles with Ashwini Ponnappa since last year and the combination is currently ranked 73rd in the world.
While it is still early days in their doubles career, there is a clarity of thought on the direction they need to take to build on a promising start. Shetty has already decided not to play mixed doubles as it would affect his feel of playing from the front court.
“Since Satwik is also playing mixed, sometimes he can be tired after the match and I can cover things for him,” said Shetty, as his partner nodded.