'Satwik and I can win a medal at 2020 Tokyo Olympics,' says Chirag Shetty
Two quarter-final appearances in the Superseries circuit in their debut season last year, and a semi-final appearance in their first tournament of 2018, Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy have been on a roll.
But it has never been easy for them, especially for Chirag, who started playing from a very young age at a local club and then joined an academy under Manish Hadkar at the age of seven. That's when his badminton career really took flight.
Tough decisions from an early age
When Chirag was 11 or 12 years old, his coach, who had shifted to Uday Pawar's badminton academy, asked him to join them. It was a difficult decision for the young boy. If he wanted to pursue badminton as a profession, then making the switch would have been the obvious choice.
But at that age, no one can be entirely sure of what he or she wants to do for a living. It would also drastically affect one's education because picking up a sport in India as a profession is often met with glares and snide remarks.
However, Chirag had set his mind. "I knew it would affect my education, and somewhat, it did. But I had made up my mind... I wanted to play badminton.
"It's difficult to manage both, badminton and education, but somehow I figured out a way to manage both and yeah, it's been going good so far," he said.
There have been so many instances of talented young Indian athletes giving up on their dreams owing to lack of support from their parents. But that was not the case for Chirag, even after he opted to take up commerce instead of science.
"After class 10, I had to make a choice. If I wanted to take science, I had to leave badminton because playing a sport and pursuing science at the same time is not possible. I chose commerce as I wanted to pursue what I loved.
"My parents supported me throughout. They have really helped me a lot because taking up a sport, any sport, as a profession in India is very difficult. You need complete support of your parents, and yeah, they were always behind me," the 20-year-old said.
Chirag was playing both singles and doubles until U-19 but then he had to choose one of the two. From the very beginning, he was more inclined to doubles and also, since he was performing well in doubles he voluntarily decided to opt for it.
He may be just 20 years of age but Chirag's maturity goes way beyond that and taking such tough decisions from an early age definitely had some positive effect on his growth.
Beating the world's bests alongside Satwik
Chirag started playing alongside Satwik some two years.back after coach Tan Kim Her insisted on them joining forces.
"We were opponents at first and when the coach suggested that we play together I thought he was out of his mind. Although we were friends off the court, when we started out we thought it wouldn't work out. We are both essentially backcourt players, so there was this dilemma of who will play at the net and who will guard the backcourt," Satwik recalled.
"But with time, we got accustomed. The coach asked me to start playing at the net while Chirag would play at the back, and eventually, that is working out pretty well," he added.
Indeed, it has worked out pretty well. Just last week, Chirag and Satwik showed the world what they were capable of. First, they beat the World No.10 pair of Takuto Inoue and Yuki Kaneko of Japan in straight games. Then, in the quarters, they pulled off another big win against the World No. 6 pair of Mads Conrad-Petersen and Mads Pieler Kolding of Denmark.
Talking about the big wins, Chirag said, "We were playing the World No. 10 pair for the first time and we just wanted to attack as much as possible. We tried to keep the shuttle as low as possible and creating the openings. Both of us started attacking right from the word go and in the end, we managed to overcome their challenge.
"The quarters were a bit more difficult. We had beaten them once last year in a very close encounter at the French Open but this time, it was different. We started off well but in the second game they changed their strategy and came at us more aggressively. So, before the start of the decider, we spoke a bit and tried to keep it as simple as possible. It worked out."
While they managed to pull off two major upsets, the semifinal against World No 1 pair of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo was an entirely different ball game.
"In the semis, we were not only playing against the World No.1 pair but also against the crowd. As it is, they are one of the bests in the business and with the Indonesian crowd egging them on it was even more difficult. It was a learning experience, of course," Chirag recounted.
Thoughts on step-motherly treatment to the sport at large
One thing that has irked many badminton enthusiasts in the country is the fact that none of the matches of the first two tournaments were telecasted on Indian television. Apparently, the broadcasters don't find much value in investing for the India rights of the BWF events.
"Well, I think, till last year the format was Superseries and Grand Prix. This year they changed the names and the structure and what I heard is that there is some tussle between the broadcasters and the BWF regarding the rights.
"Even the Saina-Sindhu match was not telecasted... Saina's final at least should have been telecasted in India. It is hurting Indian badminton and whatever is going on between the broadcasters and the BWF should be sorted out sooner rather than later," Chirag opined.
Recently, Commonwealth Games gold medallist Ashiwni Ponappa had expressed her concern about the step-motherly treatment meted out to the Indian doubles division as compared to singles. Chirag, though, feels that if the Indian doubles teams start winning titles then everyone is bound to sit up and take notice.
"I agree with that (Ponappa's sentiments). But I would like to add that if we start performing well like the singles players, we too can have proper backing, you know.
"The support and all is at par but if you take a look at the sponsorships, most of them don't support doubles players. But all that can change if we start winning titles on a consistent basis," he said.
Striving for consistency
To perform well at a couple of tournaments here and there is commendable but what makes players great is consistency. And Chirag knows that.
On being asked about his future goals, he said, "Till last year, the coach had asked us to win at least one round in the Superseries tournaments and play at least the pre-quarters...that was the primary goal. But we started exceeding expectations, we started winning more matches and we started making it to the quarters.
"This year the target is to play semis because last year we made it to the quarters. I never expected to play a semi-final in my first tournament this year. I hope to be much more consistent in the coming days and feature in as many quarter-finals and semi-finals as possible."
On their chances at the ongoing India Open, Chirag said, "It's a decent draw and we are confident of doing well and repeat what we did last year."
The next Olympic Games is still more than two years away and yet, many people are already harbouring dreams of this young pair bagging a medal in Tokyo.
Chirag, however, didn't want to get too ahead at this moment. He said, "There's a lot of time. Obviously, the first thing is to qualify for the Olympics and our goal should be achieving that first.
"In two years time, anything can happen. If we keep playing well and continue performing well, anything is possible. If we work hard enough, we might just win a medal in Tokyo," the youngster added with a little smile.