Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy made history last week by becoming the first Indian men’s doubles badminton pair to reach the semi-finals of a tournament as high in stature as a World Tour Super 750 (formerly Superseries), at the French Open.

Their performance in Paris would have brought some relief after a dry spell following the Commonwealth Games in April, where they won a historic silver medal in the individual event to go with the team gold.

After Gold Coast, Chirag and Satwik suffered first and second-round exits in a string of tournaments, including the world championships and Asian Games.

During the French Open, however, there was something unusual happening on their side of the net.

Ever since they first got together as a pair in early 2016, Chirag had always played at the net and set up Satwik to unleash his powerful smashes from behind. The two were rather successful as they became the first Indian men’s doubles pair to reach a Superseries quarter-final last year (they did it twice).

In Paris, however, Chirag was seen rushing towards the back line after service, while Satwik moved forward and manned the net. It was Satwik who then created openings for his partner at the back, rather than the other way around.

Although Chirag and Satwik lost in the semi-finals in straight games to Indonesia’s Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, it wasn’t before giving the world No 1 pair a tough fight. The reversal of roles was just one of the noticeable changes in their game after the Commonwealth Games. The other big change was their much-improved defence.

Focus on defence

Chirag and Satwik have been working on their defence for a while now, after realising that their one-dimensional all-attack game was soon losing its novelty.

At some level, both these changes in their game happened as a result of circumstances. After the Japan and China Open in September, in which they lost in the first rounds, Chirag took a month off to go home and prepare for his Bachelor of Commerce examinations.

It wasn’t all work and no play for Chirag in those four weeks of study leave as he also trained at Mumbai’s Uday Pawar Badminton Academy, where he picked up the sport, every day.

“I used to run in the mornings and train twice a day,” said Chirag. “In the evenings, I used to practice defence drills. I used to work 30-45 minutes only on my defence. I used to ask people to hit hard from the back court and I used to defend.”

Explaining the drills and the areas of improvement they focused on, Pawar said, “Chirag was made to practice defence under pressure.

“We also worked on his technique and footwork. Defence is a question of movement of your feet and getting into the right positions so that you have a variety of shots in defence and also gain steadiness.”

During those drills, Chirag played a lot of dribbles and ended up rushing back to the baseline as singles players do.

Over in Hyderabad, Satwik played with Kidambi Nandagopal in the absence of Chirag.

Nandagopal, who is Satwik’s senior and also a back-court player, used to tell the 18-year-old to go towards the net after service. “I got used to it and that’s why I went in front during the tournament,” said Satwik.

“We didn’t plan for it to happen as such but it worked out well, so it’s good. Earlier, I used to rush back whenever I got the chance. Now, we understood that there is no need to rush back or front. We both can play from either position,” he added.

Both Chirag and Satwik now rue giving away a sizeable lead to Gideon and Sukamuljo early in the first game of their semi-final. They did fight back from 3-11 at the mid-game interval to 9-12, but a few more errors from the Indians allowed the Indonesians to again go on a run of seven straight points.

The second game saw a totally different Chirag and Satwik take court as they defended well and kept the shuttle in play. “Earlier, we used to hit mid-court so they used to hit back very hard. But this time our lifts went perfectly on the back line, so it was easier for us to defend,” said Satwik, who spent time watching Gideon/Sukamuljo and others play after his mixed doubles matches during the Denmark Open last week in the absence of Chirag.

The biggest difference for Chirag, this time, was that when opponents were attacking him, he was able to convert it into an offensive stroke rather than just defending blindly. “We were able to keep the rally going and I knew what I wanted from my defensive stroke,” he said.

Sticking to a plan

While their go-to mode of play will always be attack, Chirag and Satwik now have a plan B against opponents whose defence is strong. The only area of concern, now, is their temperament during crucial stages of the match against the world’s top opponents to cross the finish line.

“Maybe we need a bit more focus,” said Satwik. “When we play Kevin and Marcus, we feel the pressure a lot. We keep thinking about what they will do on court.

“We have to stick to a plan and play. We need to know each other – I need to know that Chirag will hit here so I need to go there, and vice versa. That’s where we erred towards the end of that second game [in Paris],” he added.

For this to happen, good communication is key. India’s doubles coach Tan Kim Her was heard telling the duo to “talk to each other” during the French Open semi-final. “As we are evolving as players, we need to communicate more,” admitted Chirag.

“Sometimes your partner might think differently, but if you do that in crucial points you might not win the match. We need to think alike and have the same game plan,” he added.

Chirag and Satwik are now back in Hyderabad for a week’s training ahead of three back-to-back tournaments starting next week: the China Open, the Hong Kong Open, and the Syed Modi Championships in Lucknow, where they will end their international season this year.

The season has been long and gruelling, with the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games added to the mix. The Syed Modi Championships will be Chirag and Satwik’s 18th tournament this year (Satwik has played 19, counting the Denmark Open).

While they will be heading into the last three tournaments of the year after having already achieved their season target of reaching a Superseries-level tournament’s semi-final, they are not satisfied. “It would be nice to end the season on a high with a title,” said Satwik. “Hopefully we can do it in front of our home crowd at Syed Modi.”