Commonwealth Games 2018: “Carolina Marin helps me all the time,” says Satwiksairaj Rankireddy as he aims for a medal
Some friends are rare. When a friend comes forward and selflessly wants to help you flourish, you know that you have got a friend for life.
And when that friend happens to be the Olympic champion and one of the best ever to grace her sport, you know that friendship is special.
It’s no secret that one-half of the India No. 1 badminton men’s doubles pair, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and the two-time world champion Carolina Marin gel with each other very well. One look at the numerous posts on their respective social media accounts during the Premier Badminton League (PBL) will validate that.
Thus, when you ask the 17-year-old doubles ace about their bonding, the teenager naturally gets very excited and enthusiastic talking about the Spaniard. Marin has been a friend, philosopher and guide for Rankireddy and he has no qualms about attributing a lot of his improvement and a surge in his confidence to the former World No. 1 and her coach, Fernando Rivas.
“Marin motivates me all the time,” says Rankireddy in an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda.
“When I lost to Ashwini (Ponnappa) at the PBL semi-finals, she came to me and told me, ‘This is not the end. You come and support the team. If we win, we can go through to the final.’
“At the India Open also, she came to me and told me how we were playing. Not only in PBL, she helps me in other tournaments also. In every tournament, she meets me. Even in Indonesia, she kept on explaining how we were playing. She has told me to message her any time and that she will always help me. It feels very good.
“Her coach also helped me a lot on the day of the PBL final, especially in service.”
PBL success spurs Indonesia Masters performance
The PBL has very much laid the foundation for Rankireddy’s success and the youngster is very much indebted to all the veterans, who imparted their knowledge and expertise to him.
Indonesia’s Pia Zebadiah, for example, has been one player he never fails to thank. The former World No. 6 was his mixed doubles partner at the Hyderabad Hunters team and the time spent with her has been extremely valuable for him.
He even admits that it was because of his exploits for the eventual PBL 2018 winners and the guidance from the likes of Zebadiah and Markis Kido that he made it through to the semi-finals of the Indonesia Masters, alongside Chirag Shetty.
He translated the confidence that he gained from overcoming pressure at the PBL final into three tight wins in Indonesia.
And the pressure was simply enormous at the PBL, as Rankireddy described. He and Zebadiah had the huge responsibility of bagging the winning point for the Hunters when they were deadlocked with the Bengaluru Blasters at 3-3.
With the vociferous crowd rooting for them, the young Satwik had a lot of things going on in his mind before calming down to grab the crucial win.
“Playing for the Hyderabad Hunters at the PBL was the main reason why I got to be in the semi-finals of the Indonesia Masters,” says the brutally honest Rankireddy.
“Pia and Kido helped me a lot while practising. They kept on telling me, ‘You are playing very good. You just need some experience.’
“They explained to me how to handle the situation, especially Pia. When I used to play mixed doubles with her, she used to tell me everything.
“When I was playing the PBL final, there was a lot more pressure than in any other event. The entire home crowd was supporting me. My team was depending on me. My parents came just for the final. So it was big pressure for me. I was thinking that I should win in front of my parents and if don’t win, all Hyderabadis will scold me. So many things were going on in my mind!
“When I understood that our opponents, Sikki (Reddy) and Kim Sa-Rang were under more pressure, I became more confident and raised my level.”
Fulfilling father's dream
Sports run in his blood. His father has been a physical sports director at a government high school in his hometown, Amalapuram in East Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh. His brother too played badminton at state-level tournaments until he got busy with studies.
It was in those summer camps, organized by his father, that he would get his badminton coaching before arriving at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in 2012.
Making the cut for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games has thus brought immense happiness to his father as it was his dream.
“I am really excited to play at the Commonwealth Games for it was my father’s dream. My parents were very happy when they heard that I got selected in the squad. It is very special when you play for the country,” he says.
And it’s not just turning up that he will be satisfied with. He and Chirag are very much determined to lay their hands on a medal. Their consistent results at the top-tier tournaments in the past few months have increased their self-belief.
“I think we have been playing well for the last three months and we are very confident about ourselves after reaching the semi-finals in Indonesia in January and then winning a round at the All England. So, we have quite good chances of winning a medal.”
They have got a shot in the arm right ahead of the Games. In this week’s world rankings, they have broken into the top 20 for the first time in their fledgling careers.
Did they ever expect it after playing just one full season of Superseries events together?
Satwik reveals that even they are surprised at the breakneck speed at which they have been climbing up the ranking chart. Their target was just a top-25 spot by the year-end.
“It feels very special. We made it very quickly. We thought about just making the top 25 by the year-end but we have made it at the start of the year. So, we are pretty happy.”
Rocky start to partnership with Shetty
And it’s a well-deserved reward for their heroics over the past one year. In their Superseries debut season, they reached two quarter-finals, besides qualifying for the World Championships.
They have proved that they are fast learners and are absolutely not afraid of facing the top names in the sport. After reaching the semi-finals in Indonesia this January, they have undoubtedly established themselves in the big league.
Their upset wins have become a regular affair and no longer surprise badminton aficionados. Indian fans now have so much faith in their abilities.
That they have an exceptional understanding with each other is what is reflected in their performances.
But things weren’t always this smooth between the two. The two had a rocky start. It was on the coach, Tan Kim Her’s advice that they began hanging out with each other and that paved the way for the fantastic bonding that we now see.
“I think our understanding and communication has been the reason for our success,” points out Satwik, before adding, “We now stay together and go out together. Earlier, it was totally different. I am Telugu and I used to go out with my Telugu friends and he used to go out with Hindi-speaking friends.
“Later on, the coach told us to be together. So, we now even go out for movies together.”
Despite their inexorable rise, their recent few defeats have been in very tight matches, which automatically makes one wonder if they are lacking in that extra push that is needed in high-voltage matches. Rankireddy did not hesitate to answer that question at all.
Being smart towards the business end of a match is what they need and for that, he very much believes that mental training is imperative. It was evident all the three times that they played the highly accomplished pair of Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen.
The Danes like to bank on their defence and have a tendency to lift the shuttle, which makes it very easy for the attacking Indian pair to smash it down. That has been the principle reason why all three of their encounters have gone the distance, yet Mogensen and Boe have emerged the winners each time.
“Boe and Mogensen play defensively a lot. So we get a lot of points in attack. They just keep on lifting the shuttle and that makes it very easy for us.
“I think we need a bit of mental training to overcome the pressure in high-voltage matches. We are very strong physically, so we don’t get tired even in long matches. We really need to think smart when the score becomes 19-19 or 19-20.”
In spite of seeing their All England Open dreams crashing at the hands of Boe and Mogensen in a highly competitive second round epic, Rankireddy’s spirits are high. Not brooding over these losses is another quality of theirs that stands out.
Goals for 2018
He and Chirag have a revised target in place for the remainder of the year, having already accomplished their first goal within the first three months of the year. Now their sights are on a top-15 berth and fetching a vital point in the team competitions, so that it reduces the workload of the singles exponents.
“Ranking-wise, we hope to be in top-15 this year and maintain that. Result-wise, we are looking forward to playing in the final of a big event. We also have the Asian Games and Thomas Cup.
“If we play well, we can get one point through doubles. Srikanth anna, Sai bhaiya, Prannoy bhaiya are already playing so well in singles and can get points. So, if we can get one point through doubles, it will make things easier for the Indian team and can increase our winning chances.”
At the tender age of 17, Rankireddy is already thinking about the entire national team and how he and Chirag can step up to the challenge. With so much maturity and humility, he is definitely destined for far bigger things in his career as well as life.