No matter how much a player achieves, a tiny bit of complacency can be dangerous enough to bring about a downfall. The young men’s doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty -- currently India’s top team -- learned it the hard way at the recently-concluded Senior National Championships.
The World No. 27 duo was one point away from winning the title as many as six times only to be inflicted upon a defeat by the experienced team of Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy. Shetty, all of 20 years, had no qualms admitting that it was indeed complacency that proved to be their bane when Sportskeeda caught up with him for an exclusive chat.
“We were a bit complacent. We were leading 20-17 in the second after winning the first comfortably,” Shetty explained.
“Till 23-23 in the decider, we were leading every time. There was a big rally after that and Sumeeth dived and the shuttle came on the netcord. And then we put the shuttle into the net on their first match point.
After the second game, we made quite a few simple errors which we could have avoided. It does happen sometimes,” Chirag added.
The brutal honesty and the maturity in his analysis were absolutely refreshing to hear.
The day of the Nationals final, however, left a bitter taste in the mouth for the Mumbai-born shuttler even before the match started. With a little bit of time left for his match, one-half of the country’s No. 1 men’s doubles pair was subjected to an ordeal by an insolent watchman. Chirag, unassuming as ever, played down the incident and said it was not much of an issue, although the lack of respect that the security guard showed, is appalling.
“There were about 5,000 people outside the stadium. I went outside to the loo but wasn’t allowed to re-enter when I came back. I told the watchman that I have a match in sometime but he refused to let me in through that entrance and told me to use the other entrance. The watchman talked a bit rudely to me and said that I don't look like a badminton player. One of the organizing team members then came and said: "Isko aane do (Let him through). Only then he allowed me,” said Shetty, recounting the bitter experience.
Considering the progress that Shetty and his 17-year-old partner, Satwiksairaj has made in a year, it is pretty discouraging to know that they are still not that well-known, as validated by that predicament on the Nationals final day. Perhaps, it also paints a clear picture of how exactly doubles is still regarded in the country, despite the recent improvements.
'We have one of the best attacks in the world'
The two are now the only Indian men’s doubles pair to have reached a minimum of two Superseries quarter-finals in a single season which they accomplished at the Korea Open and the French Open. Their unabashed aggression is what has taken them to such colossal heights in their very first season of playing Superseries events and Shetty even went to the extent of saying that he believes that their team is endowed with one of the best attacks in the world.
“When we started a year back, we never hoped that we’ll be coming so far in a year. Mainly our attack has improved. We take chances in attack as much as possible. Our attack is one of the best in the world currently, I feel, and our opponents are caught by surprise.”
Any talk of their Superseries exploits should automatically veer to their outstanding display in the Paris quarter-finals in October where they came back from a 5-21 deficit in the first game to nearly upset the defending champions, Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen. Shetty and Rankireddy held everyone’s rapt attention that day and perhaps there could have been no better way to stamp their arrival on the big stage than that.
They ultimately lost 5-21, 21-17, 17-21 but not before exhibiting all the facets that make them a lethal pair and one that could possibly threaten the big names in the game in the coming few years. In the end, it was just a difference of a few points and the more stable pair came through.
“Reaching the quarter-finals in Korea helped boost our confidence. So, we took the same momentum to the French as well.
We have played them before in the Syed Modi International. There after winning the first one, we were leading 9-4 or 10-4 in the second. But you can’t underestimate them and they came back from there.
Playing them in a Superseries quarter-final was a good experience. It was a packed crowd there. If we were a bit more stable and steady in the last two three points, we could have won,” Shetty said with a tinge of regret.
Shetty himself earned plaudits for his stupendous play at the net in that particular match but it was surprising to hear that it was not natural and he had to acquire that skill only through weeks of perseverance.
“When we started off, I was more of a backcourt player because I am tall and have a good smash as well. But the coach asked me to play more on the front court. I had to work a lot on my net game because I was not used to playing at the net. So, it took some time but now the results are showing.”
Tan Kim Her brought the two of them together
It was the Malaysian doubles coach, Tan Kim Her’s foresight that brought about Rankireddy and Shetty together in end of 2015, just a month after the former’s arrival in India. While the two were playing with their respective partners at that time, Tan insisted on them joining forces together.
The understanding was very well right from the start and they got instant success, Shetty recalled.
“After the 2015 Junior Nationals, Tan Kim Her Sir asked us to send an entry for the All India Senior Ranking tournament in Kochi. It was about a month after he arrived in India and he wanted to test a few pairs. That was our first tournament together. At first, we were a bit hesitant because our respective partnerships at that time were going pretty well,” he said.
“We ended up winning that tournament. It was the first All India senior title for me and for Satwik as well. The coach thus asked us to continue playing together. But we played after four months since that tournament.
We lost in the first round of our first three international tournaments. Then we played a tournament in Mauritius and won four back-to-back events,” Shetty said, charting their journey.
Switching from double duty to only doubles
The young doubles player -- a product of the Uday Pawar Badminton Academy in Mumbai -- initially used to juggle duties in both doubles and singles till the under-19 stage. But it ultimately became too much of a burden and affected his fitness which is when he had to take a call, as advised by his coach. The crucial decision at the age of 17-18 years, combined with his own passion for doubles, helped shape his mindset and flourish in the discipline that he chose, the fruits of which are now in display.
“I started off playing badminton at the age of seven. There was regular coaching at the Goregaon Sports Club. One day my father took me there and enrolled me there.
My proper badminton training started when I joined the Uday Pawar Badminton Academy at the age of 12. Till under-19, I used to play singles. In one tournament, Arjun MR and I played against Satwik and Krishna Prasad Garaga. In that tournament, I played the quarter-finals and semi-finals in singles in one day. Both the matches went to three games. I was a bit tired and got cramped. So, I had to concede the doubles match,” Shetty described.
“I spoke to my coach and he told me that it’s better you shift to doubles since you are getting good performance in doubles. I loved playing doubles more than singles, so I did as he told, at the age of 17-18 years,” he said.
Pawar, a member of the 1986 Asian Games bronze medal-winning team, ignited the sparks in Shetty through his narrations of his experience of playing with the legendary Prakash Padukone. A young Chirag, fascinated by the stories of the former World No. 1’s discipline, caught on the badminton bug and very much calls Padukone his idol now.
Revamped training sessions are responsible for the improvements
Chirag also talked about how Tan Kim Her has revolutionized doubles badminton in India. He has given the entire system of coaching a much-required facelift and the changes that he has incorporated have not only helped boost their confidence but have also made them understand what exactly a certain player needs.
Since the World Championships, an Indian doubles pair has made it to at least the quarter-finals in three of the four Superseries events. Tan’s hard work and his faith in his players are clearly getting reflected in the results.
“The changes in the technique and even the practice sessions have contributed to the improvement. Previously, the sessions used to be more singles-centric and the doubles players lacked in the technique.
Nowadays we train for three sessions in a day. The morning session focusses more on defence; the second session is all about individual training like we get a chance to work on the strokes we individually lack in. In the final session, we work on our physicality like we do weights or skipping,” Shetty elaborated.
“Satwik and I should not be compromising on strengthening ourselves. We are still young and we play an attacking game, so if we want to last till the end, we have to be physically strong.
I have to admit, though, we are still not performing that consistently. But the signs of improvement are definitely there. We are not losing by a big margin, we are at least able to fight till the very end nowadays,” Chirag observed.
Exceeded Tan's expectations this season
Shetty and Rankireddy have done so well in a year that they have even exceeded Tan’s expectations. Just one Superseries pre-quarter-final was the target for this year which they have achieved with aplomb and went even further, more than once. The bar has thus been raised higher now and at least a Superseries semi-final is now the revised target for 2018.
Shetty even expressed confidence that a final at that level could even be within their reach if they can show more consistency throughout the upcoming season.
“For this year, the coach had set us a target of reaching at least the pre-quarter-finals of a Superseries tournament and for next year, our target was at least three or four quarter-finals. Since we have already achieved more than that our target in 2017, we hope to reach at least the semi-finals of a Superseries event by next year. If we can continue playing well, we might as well make it to a final, you never know,” said Shetty, the self-belief totally oozing from his voice.
And it’s not just the Superseries events or the World Championships that will receive all the attention from the shuttlers next year. The Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games make it a thoroughly packed schedule and give the top players two more extra chances to prove their supremacy on the elite stage.
Admitting that the Asian Games is a lot more difficult, the sagacious Shetty emphasized that consistency is the pre-requisite for qualification and if they do manage to grab that much-coveted berth, a Commonwealth Games medal is what they will set their sights upon.
“The Asian Games is a bit more difficult. If we qualify from India we’ll definitely aim for a medal at the Commonwealth Games,” he signed off.