Satwiksairaj Rankireddy was told in no uncertain terms when he arrived from his long U.S. flight last month that the World Championships meant he wasn’t allowed to be jet-lagged and not permitted to take off on Sundays.
Good fortune had come their way, when second-string doubles pairings from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia opted to head to the South-East Asian Games instead of the World Championships. Chinese Taipei — another buzzing team — were ensuring their World Universiade tally looked pretty at home. It opened up spots for Indians on the fringe to make a mark at the World Championships. For some time now, it has been apparent that Satwik is the most exciting talent on India’s doubles scene, but his coaches knew he needed fortitude to go with that slice of fortune.
He was pulled out from a tournament in New Zealand a month ago, and packed off half a world away to another scenic country in the northern hemisphere to be better prepared. There was a price to pay: “They cancelled all my Sundays for a month. We trained everyday,” the teenage sensation, known for his pulverising doubles attack, had said prior to leaving for the Worlds.
His potential has been the talk of the town, but what wasn’t known was his crackling chemistry with K Maneesha, a feisty if much weaker mixed doubles partner in the pairing. The two, ranked 77 on the circuit currently, have played alongside each other for many years. And they lit up Day 1 of the World Championships for India with a mini-upset 24-22, 21-17 win over Hong Kong’s World No 51 Tam Chun Hei and NG Tsz Yau.
It was a stomping display from the two, who bullied their opponents into submission after trailing 13-18 in the opening game, picking up their tempo in the big moments.
There’s a refreshing honesty to this pair that concedes that not playing together for a few months worked brilliantly for them. “Good we didn’t play or we would have been fighting with each other,” Satwik said, after the exciting 44-minute scrap-off.
Satwik is tall, powerful, attacking and has improved his game manifolds after coach Kim Tan Her coaxed him to stop playing in juniors and focus on seniors instead. Suddenly, he was at the Thomas Cup and Sudirman Cup and Super Series, a quick learner lapping up all the experience and pace that the opportunity provided. He would play one of the best matches of his short career with India’s top doubles shuttler Ashwini Ponappa — a combination that offers much hope in the coming days. But at the Worlds, he was paired with Maneesha, a smaller player with a gutsy temperament and clever brain, but physically not amongst the strongest.
With Satwik having zoomed off in the elevator, and Maneesha, though his senior, playing in the lower tiers of the game, frustration would set in when the two were compelled to play together. “She irritates me a lot because her serve had gone very weak and it is difficult to adjust to a girl who is making mistakes,” Satwik says with exasperation, “but she’s taught me patience in life.”
Ashwini had been a steadier partner, not prone to errors, and Maneesha needed to prop up her serve and defence. “But she worked very hard — almost 4-5 hours just on her serve,” he says.
The duo had lost to the same pairing in Malaysia earlier in the year, and the pressure was on the Indians. Sweating on Sundays was about to yield returns. “Our endurance conditioning for a month was a lot of track running — 10 rounds of 400m every single day just to help us last this level,” Satwik had said. India’s modest doubles teams needed the base work to give themselves a chance of making the most of the gaping draws.
The Indians would trail by 5 points, looking like exiting early on Monday, before Maneesha got sturdier in defence, and began rediscovering the front-court understanding she’s shared with Satwik for years. The pair operates on a basic plan — Maneesha sets up the kills for her junior partner, and his big smash does the rest. “My strength is Satwiksairaj,” Maneesha said, when asked what part of her game worked on the day. “I just create openings and he finishes points.”
The 21-year-old did more than that — of course. Displaying immense control on the net, and fine acceleration of speed while finding the gaps, Maneesha would put the Hong Kong pair under pressure, even as Satwik worked the angles and executed the kills. The Indians would roar back from a 18-20 deficit in the first game, and take the three crucial points after levelling at 21-all to display a fighting temperament.
Pumping fists, and rotating at the net, the Indians would keep their opponents under the pump and take an early lead in the second. Keeping their nerve as they grabbed the momentum, the duo would finish off with greater verve in the second to move into Round 2 at their maiden Worlds. “It’s on my serve that we won the last point,” Maneesha would say, after Satwik had badgered her through the month about the weak spot in her game.
Besides inadvertently boosting his patience, Maneesha might well have helped Satwik express himself more on court. “She shouts at me for not shouting enough and showing aggression. I like playing quietly. But today I joined in as well,” he says.