Indian Pair Blazes a Trail

Thursday, August 15, 2019
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTON PHOTO

The Indians have been as astute in defence as in attack.

Once they had completed their post-match rituals of their Thailand Open semifinal win, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty returned to their hotel room, where Rankireddy wept, overcome by what they’d just done.

It had been an emotional victory for the Indians, for they had vanquished 2014 world champions Ko Sung Hyun and Shin Baek Cheol. Rankireddy had grown up idolising Korean big-hitter Ko.

That victory would be a prelude to an even more dramatic triumph a day later, as the Indians kept their date with history in a 21-19 18-21 21-18 upset of world champions Li Jun Hui and Liu Yu Chen. They became the first-ever Indian pair to win a title of this level.

“I was crying in the room, I didn’t imagine I could beat them,” Rankireddy recalled, on their semifinal win. “When I was young I used to watch them on TV, I wanted to play like Ko Sung Hyun, hit like Ko Sung Hyun. And in the third game today, I was thinking, oh I’m playing the final, I’m beating the world champions, play free, no pressure.”

India have had competent doubles players in the past, but none with the firepower of Rankireddy. With his big hitting from the back enabling the Indians to close out points, and with Chirag Shetty more than holding up his own end, the Indians have made progress, and quickly. Nor is theirs a one-dimensional style, for they have shown sound all-round skills.

A semifinal at the French Open and a final at the Syed Modi Championships last year indicated they were on the verge of a big moment, but a sternum fracture to Rankireddy in January put him out of action for four months. That coincided with the departure of Malaysian coach Tan Kim Her and the arrival of Indonesian Flandi Limpele.

The level of their play bears the imprint of both coaches – Tan’s tactical acumen, and Limpele’s insistence on fitness. What used to be close matches against top pairs are now getting converted into victories.

“With Flandi, the emphasis is on the physical aspects. The drills are a lot tougher. Over the last three-four years, we’d been doing a lot of skill-based training, but this time we’re focussing on the physical aspects,” said Shetty at the Japan Open, where they made the quarterfinals.

Rankireddy, a naturally big-built lad, also ascribes the uptick in performance to better fitness routines.

“We can feel we’re stronger on court. We’re fresh even if we’re playing three games. So even in the third game, we feel like it’s the first game. Like I was feeling fully fit after the second game today, I felt I could hit a thousand smashes as well.”

Following Rankireddy’s injury, the pair returned only in May, and eased into the circuit, gradually notching one big win after another. Even their defeats – to Li/ Liu in Australia or Kamura/Sonoda in Japan – were close affairs. The Indians now know they possess the weapons for the knockout punch against the world’s best pairs.

“We have one of the best attacks in the world,” says Shetty, a statement that no Indian men’s doubles player before him could have made with such nonchalance, for Indian doubles has conventionally been about craft rather than power. “We haven’t had a problem with most of the top pairs. We’re almost up there. After the injury break, we’re getting back to the top level. But those two-three points at the end matter a lot.”

The Indians’ win in Thailand has thrown up some intriguing possibilities for the TOTAL BWF World Championships. The Minions remain the favourites, alongside defending champions Li and Liu, and other top pairs like Kamura/Sonoda and Ahsan/Setiawan. But there is little doubt that, on their day, Rankireddy and Shetty can steal the show against most of the others.

“After playing this level, we’re pretty confident that we can pull off some matches at the World Championships,” says Rankireddy. “We’re confident on every stroke. Earlier, we used to shiver on defence. We weren’t certain of playing some strokes, but now we don’t have any such fears. So whether it’s me at the front or him at the back, it’s proper doubles now.”

Note: Rankireddy and Shetty have pulled out of the World Championships due to injuries.