‘When we are playing at our best, it’s very difficult for people to beat us.’
Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty have gone where no other Indian badminton doubles pair have gone before.
They are the only doubles pair to enter the top 10 in the world rankings and have held steady for the last few years.
The pair is currently ranked no 7 in the world and have had unprecedented success in the first half of 2022.
They sat down recently with Prithviraj Hegde, Rajul Hegde and Rajesh Karkera at the Goregaon Sports Club in suburban Mumbai.
It was on the courts of this club that Chirag started playing badminton at a young age.
The pair come to the interview after a grueling practice session under the watchful eyes of their current doubles coach Mathais Boe.
Part 1 of a multi-part exclusive interview:
You guys have had a good run recently, gold and a silver (in doubles) at the Commonwealth Games and an unprecedented team gold again in the Thomas Cup and a bronze medal at the Badminton World Championship? Is the No. 1 ranking now a tangible goal for you guys going ahead?
Chirag: Well definitely, I think entering the top 5 is definitely the goal for the year and it’s very much achievable. The first six months of this year have been really good.
Starting off with a win in the Indian Open in January and followed it up with the Thomas Cup victory, which was by far the best ever performance not only for me and Satwik but also for Indian badminton as a whole.
It ranks up there on our achievements list. Then we had the Commonwealth Games and lastly the Badminton World Championship.
It’s been a phenomenal year and yes, we do want to enter the top five eventually and who knows may be the world number 1.
Who do you see as your great rivals and challengers on the tour? We see a lot of Malaysian, Indonesian and Japanese pairs coming through the ranks.
Satwik: Right now, there are many pairs from Indonesia and Malaysia.
The pairs from these countries specially trouble us a bit. But now our game is also at the same level.
So, on a given day any pair can win. Even some Chinese pairs are coming up, so we have to be on our toes.
‘Doubles is like a marriage. Both have to fix it,’ Satwik has said. You guys seem to be good friends now and you have great chemistry on the court.
It must have been difficult at first. Chirag a city boy and Satwik, who comes from rural Amlapuram in Andhra Pradesh.
I believe you guys had initial difficulties and it seems it was your then coach, Malaysian Tan Kim Her who paired you up first in 2016. So how was that ride?
Satwik: Initially it was tough and I was playing with double partner Krishna Prasad who is also a local lad (from Andhra Pradesh) so I had a good understanding with him. And our chemistry was great and we were playing at the MRF Academy and doing very well.
It was very difficult when Tan sir told us to play together.
Initially there were lot of difficulties, but Tan sir told us to persist. Slowly we began gelling together.
Tan sir stressed on the importance of us getting to know each other better and becoming good friends.
So, he insisted that we have at least one meal together every day and hang out a bit. We got to know each other better and better.
And now we are like brothers, even our families have grown close. And now Chirag is the most important person in my life.
From being rivals to our initial difficult days we have grown close together and now we are good buddies.
So, we feel we have done something good for India and ourselves.
Chirag, would you like to comment on your initial difficulties?
Chirag: Like Satwik said, we came from very different backgrounds.
It was difficult in the beginning because our interests were different and our likes and dislikes did not match.
Like Satwik said, both of us were playing with different partners and we were great rivals on the circuit.
From those days to where we have come is quite a journey.
There were have many sacrifices that both of us had to make along the way but I think the journey has been worth it.
How have your coaches influenced you, in your growth as badminton stars?
Satwik: When Coach Tan came, we learnt the skills of how doubles can change and he made a huge difference in doubles in India.
The three-and-a-half years he was here in India really helped Indian doubles’ teams. I feel he brought me and few other players in. I used to play mixed doubles as well. He totally changed the mindset of Indian doubles and told us that you can achieve great things.
It’s not like you win only the nationals and get satisfied. You have to play lot of tournaments to get experience to face those situations in the super-series and bigger tournaments.
When we started, we played lot of international challenger series to get that experience. So, when we started winning these tournaments, we got a lot of confidence and we played some good matches. Tan was very skillful, but unfortunately, he had to return to Japan.
Then we had the Indonesian Flandy Limpele as coach. When he came it become more of mental and stamina development. We began to think strategy and also became more powerful players. When he was there, we won our first Super Series tournament, the Thailand Open. So, he was kind of a lucky coach for us.
After he left Mathias Boe came in. The Dane is a mix of everything, smart on court, very professional and he is a current generation player as well. And he knows what is happening in the world right now in the doubles. So accordingly, he plans everything. He is a former world no. 1 and he has played for the longest time.
After him coming we have understood that we can still win games even on bad days as well. He made us like professional double players.
We were playing, but were not like professional players, not like how champions behave and all. But now we are in the champion mindset.
So, every coach has a played a different role. Gopi sir (Pullela Gopichand) has been my backbone and also few others Indian coaches. So, everyone has put up their 100 percent work behind us. We are thankful to them.
And Chirag? You started your early days with yesteryear doubles specialist Uday Pawar.
Chirag: Well, I have started my badminton journey in this very club under my first coach Manish Thakker.
I used to train under him during my initial years. Then he shifted his base to Uday Pawar’s academy.
I think I was 10 years old when I joined Uday sir. I played there right till my junior days.
He built a strong foundation for me to enter the senior level.
So, all credit goes to him because of the time he spent with me on court to show me the small intricacies of the sport.
It’s not just him, I owe a lot to all the coaches who have worked with us over the years. Like I said it couldn’t have gotten any better.
Chirag, your instinct and agility at the net and Satwik’s brawn at the back of the court. Is that what makes you such a good doubles pair in addition your great understanding on court?
Chirag: Well, I think we complement each other really well.
When we are playing at our best, it’s very difficult for people to beat us.
Like you said, Satwik’s back court game and me at the net, when we are playing that style of a game, it’s really difficult to get past us.
I think that is one of the biggest advantages that we have.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com
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