When Malaysian doubles coach Tan Kim Her left the Indian team to join Japan in March this year, Chirag Shetty had put an emotional Instagram post announcing the coach’s departure.
The anxiety in Chirag’s post was completely understandable given the fact that it was ‘Tan coach’ who had brought together Chirag and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy despite opposition from the players themselves and many other coaches. And just when they were beginning to flourish, he had decided to move on.
The period also coincided with a freak injury – sternum fracture – Satwik suffered when on holiday in the USA and kept him away for almost five months. But to their credit, the pair did not rush their way back into competition, got used to the methods of new coach Flandy Limpele and on Sunday created history by becoming the first Indian pair to win a BWF Tour Super 500 title at the Thailand Open.
In the current tournament structure, BWF Tour Super 500 event may be the third highest tier of competition but what makes this title triumph special for Chirag and Satwik was that the competition attracted nine of the top-10 world ranked pairings and they clinched the crown by defeating reigning world champions Li Jun Hui and Liu Yu Chen.
They had also accounted for former world champions Ko Sung Hyun and Shin Baek Cheol in the semifinals and the 2018 Asian Games silver medallists Fazar Alfian and Muhammad Rian Ardianto in the second round.
It was the kind of performance coach Tan had envisaged when he paired two tall and aggressive shuttlers against their own will and wishes of their personal coaches back in 2016. He was thoroughly backed by chief national coach Pullela Gopichand, who picked them as reserve pairing for major team events to give them experience and exposure ahead of other experienced campaigners and all those efforts bore fruit on Sunday in Bangkok.
But it wasn’t an easy journey for both Satwik and Chirag, who had to break their already successful partnerships with G Krishna Prasad and MR Arjun respectively. Last year, both had spoken to Scroll.in about the bouts of self-doubt and frustration in the first few months as they failed to win any matches in their first three international tournaments together and how the coaches help them turn things around.
The upward graph started with a title in the Mauritius Open in June 2016 as they bagged a hat-trick of International Series titles, adding the India International and Bangladesh International crowns to end the year on a high.
But it was the year 2017 that finally gave them the belief that they could challenge the best in the business when they reached the quarterfinals of the Korea and French Open Superseries and ran the then world number two pairing of Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen close in the last eight round in Paris.
“Those two performances gave us the boost and made us believe that we are meant to play at a much higher level,” said Chirag as he looked back at the journey of the last four years.
They began the 2018 season by reaching the semi-finals of the Indonesia Masters Super 500 tournament and created history by becoming the first Indian men’s doubles combination to win a Commonwealth Games silver medal but it was clear that something was missing when it came to finishing off matches against the top pairs in world badminton despite running them close.
It was clear that the aggressive pair needed a Plan B in crunch situations and a break for exams for Chirag in September, allowed both of them to add more variation to their games. While both worked extensively on their defence, the one-dimensional approach of Satwik playing from behind and his partner manning the front court began to change with both focusing on better rotation.
The advantages of having a Plan B showed as they earned yet another first by reaching the semi-finals of the in the 2018 French Open Super 750 tournament and even pushed world number one combination of Kevin Sukamuljo and Marcus Gideon in the second game of the last four stage. They then reached the quarters of the China Open Super 750 event and the final of Syed Modi International at home before the freak injury to Satwik forced them to start from scratch once again.
And the departure of Tan Kim Her looked like a knock-out punch at the most inappropriate time.
“It did really affect us because he was the guy who brought us from 300 to 16th rank in the world. But I think we were a lot more mature... Flandy coach worked a lot on our fitness and that showed in the tournament as we were not tired even after playing so many long matches in the tournament,” said Chirag, who learned the ropes of the game at Mumbai’s Uday Pawar Academy before joining the national camp in Hyderabad as a doubles specialist.
It was a time when Satwik was still recovering from the fracture and Chirag also had trouble in his wrist. While both of them worked on their recovery process under the watchful eyes of physios and trainers provided to them by GoSports Foundation, they also made a conscious choice of not rushing back to play tournaments and instead focused on a lot of ground training for improving endurance and adapting to the training methods of the Indonesian coaches.
They, then, began slowly by playing a couple of International Challenge tournaments to get into the groove – winning the Brazil International and reaching semi-finals of Denmark Challenge in May. They were also working consciously on becoming more consistent without compromising on their attacking instinct and keeping their heads in crunch situations against top players.
And all that came together in Bangkok when they first put behind the disappointment of wasting two match points against Ko and Shin in the semi-finals in the second game to win the decider with a domineering performance.
In the final, the two points that stood out were probably Satwik’s flick serve under pressure at 19-18 to win a game point in the first game and the way the two youngsters stuck it out in the fast-paced 32-shot rally, crouching, stretching to keep the shuttle in play till their Chinese opponents wilted and made a mistake and gave them two match points.
“Well, we kept our calm all throughout the tournament. Even when we were down 1-4 in the third game (in the final), we didn’t lose hope. We just were steady and did not rush things to give them a bigger lead. We just stuck to our plan of keeping the shuttle low and not hurrying through the points,” said Satwik.
Mind you, Satwik was struggling with shoulder pain even before the start of the match and hence had to play near the net a lot, something that doesn’t come naturally to him. This meant that the towering youngster had to stay low for prolonged periods, testing his endurance.
The change from single shuttle drills under Tan Kim Her to more focus on multi-shuttle drills under Limpele have also helped Chirag and Satwik play at a high pace without making too many mistakes while attacking from the back or tapping on the net.
“To win a big title, you have to play consistently all throughout the tournament. The only thing that we lacked in the past was consistency and calmness and I think in this tournament that was the difference,” explained Chirag, looking back at the title-winning run.
It was the absence of this calmness and composure against England’s Marcus Ellis and Chris Langride in the Commonwealth Games final that had proved the difference between the gold and silver medal in Gold Coast last year.
But on Sunday, they showed how far the pair has come in terms of maturity and reading the game in crunch situations. The win will also help them break into the top-10 for the first time.
From here on, the pressure of expectations would only keep increasing and the real challenge for Chirag and Satwik will be to not run ahead of themselves and focus on the process that has brought them this far.
But with just two weeks remaining for the World Championship in Basel, the immediate focus would be on sorting out the niggles and pains and get ready for the biggest tournament of the year. The pair has been entered in the Hyderabad Open Super 100 event starting this Tuesday but it is unlikely that the fans would get to see them in action on home turf this week. And no one should be complaining.