Indian doubles pair Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty will head to Gold Coast, Australia, for their first Commonwealth Games campaign next month on a high.
Two years after they first started playing together, the pair on Thursday broke into the top 20 of the Badminton World Federation’s men’s doubles rankings for the first time in their career on the back of an impressive performance in their first All England Open.
Satwik and Chirag lost in the pre-quarterfinals to the world No 2 pair of Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen after a close match that lasted over an hour, with the score reading 16-21, 21-16, 21-23.
Despite the defeat, Satwik and Chirag’s performance has attracted a lot of praise in recent months, as they reached two Superseries quarter-finals last year and then made it to the semi-finals of the Indonesia Masters in January, where they lost to the world No 1 pair of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo.
However, their entry into the world’s top 20 surprised even them considering they weren’t even in the top 30 at the end of last season. Chirag and Satwik ended the 2017 season ranked 31st and were targeting a top-25 finish this year.
“We didn’t expect to get into the top 20 so early,” said a pleased Satwik. “Our target was top 25 by the end of the year but we have already made it to the top 20. So now by the end of the year we are aiming to be in the top 15.”
Asked what has gone right for them in these last few months, Satwik said their understanding of each other’s games has become better with each passing tournament. “Chirag knows me well and I know Chirag well, so when I hit my shot he anticipates very well where the shuttle will go and positions himself accordingly,” said Satwik. “He knows where I’m going to hit and I know where he’s going to hit. We are mentally fixed to our game strategy and not confusing each other.”
While both Chirag and Satwik are naturally attacking players, they aren’t afraid to change their strategy depending on the opponents. “Ninety percent of the time we play attacking, whether it is Kevin Sanjaya-Gideon or Boe-Mogensen, but we can’t go with the same strategy all the time,” said Satwik.
Chirag elaborated, “If you have to play at the highest level you need to have a Plan B as well. You can’t just keep attacking because people will figure you out. We try to evolve our game as much as possible. Satwik is good with smashes but just by keeping the shuttle at the net, you can’t expect a lift every time from the opponent. They will try to keep the shuttle as low as possible because we have a good attack. We have to get used to such things and we try to change our game in each tournament.”
Both Chirag and Satwik felt they could have even beaten Boe and Mogensen at the All England had their service not been faulted twice in the latter stages of the third game. Chirag’s serve was faulted when the pair was leading 15-13 and then again at 19-18 in that third game. They even went on to hold a match point at 21-20 but the experienced Danes fought back to take it 23-21.
This was the third time in the last two seasons that Boe and Mogensen had been stretched all the way by Satwik and Chirag. However, Chirag felt the Indians were unfortunate not to come out on top at the All England. “We have played them three times and all the three times we lost close matches,” he said. “The first time we lost to them [24-22, 14-21, 14-21 at the Syed Modi International last year] it was because of inexperience. When we were leading they were pretty smart to take the win away from us.
“But this time I would say we were really unfortunate. It wasn’t because of their experience that we lost. After 15 points in the third game, I got two service faults. Throughout the match I was never faulted. Only after 15-13 I was faulted twice. We were totally unfortunate. Hopefully next time we meet we might be able to beat them,” he added.
The All England was the first major tournament where the BWF’s new service rule was enforced, where the shuttle cannot be over 1.15 metres above the court surface at the time of serving. Satwik said the rule was hard on tall players like him and Chirag, who both stand over six feet. “For us, 1.15 metres is near the thigh so we have to bend and serve. For short people it’s very easy. Nothing has changed for them,” he said.
However, the two youngsters have put the defeat behind them and are now focused on achieving an unprecedented goal for Indian men’s doubles badminton at the Commonwealth Games. No Indian men’s doubles pair has won a medal at the Commonwealth Games yet and this is a fact that is already playing on Chirag and Satwik’s minds.
“We should bring a medal back for our country,” said Satwik. Till now, an Indian men’s doubles pair hasn’t won any medal at CWG so we are thinking about that. We are pretty confident considering the way we have been playing over the last three months. If we play the way we did at the All England, we can even win the gold.”
Considering the teams participating in Gold Coast, winning a medal should not be a problem for Satwik and Chirag. The only two pairs who can come in the way of a historic gold on paper for the Indians are Malaysia’s Goh V Shem and Tan Wee Kiong, ranked 13th in the world, and England’s Marcus Ellis and Chris Langridge, ranked 24th.
Chirag and Satwik have played in big tournaments before. Last year, they participated in the Sudirman Cup and the World Championship for the first time. The All England this year was also their first. However, nothing comes close to the Commonwealth Games for the two, where they are India’s sole men’s doubles specialists in the squad.
“It’s one of the most important tournaments we have played so far because it is a quadrennial event,” said Chirag. “It’s also a very prestigious event. Since the day I started playing badminton I’ve heard about Prakash [Padukone] sir being the first Indian gold medallist in badminton at CWG. We’re hoping to do well.”