Even the Big Smash of Indian badminton – Satwiksairaj Rankireddy – needs the occasional leg up. Considered Indian doubles’ brightest talent with his massive attacking game, the booming mortar-gun smash and hitting speed that’s on par with the top international names in what are shuttle’s quickest exchanges, Satwik is the name that is expected to push the country to achieve unprecedented heights in doubles.
But every so often, the 18-year-old confronts the sobering realisation that his game cannot take off without his two irreplaceable partners – Ashwini Ponappa in mixed doubles and Chirag Shetty in the men’s doubles.
While they carry on with their ingrained responsibilities of assisting and setting up Satwik’s big attacks, on World Championship early round days like Tuesday, the two are perfectly capable of carrying the big lad along on his off days.
While Ashwini took on the majority mantle of pulling the pair through in a fighting comeback of a Round 2 match against German 15th seeds Mark Lamsfuss and Isabel Herttrich 10-21, 21-17, 21-18, it was Chirag Shetty who stepped up boldly at the crunch as the duo packed off Olympic bronze medallists Marcus Ellis and Chris Langridge of England, 21-19, 12-21, 21-19.
For quite some time now, Chirag Shetty, the brain to Satwik’s brawn, has been shouldering the responsibility of taking control when things get a tad rough on court. On Tuesday against the Commonwealth Games champions, it was at 16-16 in the decider.
The young English pair besides shocking everyone with the surprise bronze at Rio, had also been a thorn in the flesh of the even younger Indian combination, after the Gold Coast final where they shattered Indian hearts.
Satwik-Chirag deeply felt the difference between winning a silver and claiming the gold, and had since faced a bit of a slump on the South East Asian swing of tournaments post a break. At Nanjing in the opening round of Men’s doubles, they were up against the English again, who had gritted out a 8-11 deficit and reached 16-all in the third. It’s here that Chirag dropped his setter’s role and sent a smash whistling across the court.
The 21-year-old would pick the next couple of winners in a hurry to deny the Englishmen the chance to wrest momentum, going 19-16 up. It was his proactive snatching of the moment that eventually parried off the pair after Satwik netted a serve. “Our coach asked us to play our natural game, and to focus on the first three-four strokes. A big load is off our shoulders. If we play our natural game, we can beat anybody,” Chirag would tell BWF later, underlining his decision to switch gears to attack in clutch play.
It was the second match of the day, in fact, when Satwik needed some serious shepherding from his partner – this time Ashwini Ponappa, who has evolved as a leader this year. Satwik had literally woken from the wrong side of the bed. “We didn’t start well. I didn’t have good enough rest yesterday night and there was some body pain,” he said, after the pairing had finished their second round match in the morning, rallying from a howler of a first game. “Luckily I was warmed up by second game,” he would tell the BWF later.
While service faults had thrown them off at the start of the match, the pair had appeared a little unsure when the match against the higher-ranked Germans began. Isabel was quite a handful at the net, and the Indians needed to break the wall at the net, as they steadied themselves and cut down on the easy errors.
“I was nervous, she was confident,” satwik would say wryly later. It wasn’t the most convincing of wins, but the duo showed great application ion returning from the first set deficit.
The Indians would get a little more aggressive as the match progressed. “We got more pushes in as opposed to get to the net because the girl was good and it was important to get the shuttle past her,” Ashwini said. Though she felt the dip in confidence too, the 28-year-old kept her head and dug deep to pull both of them out of trouble.
They run into the Malaysians Goh Soon Huat – Shevon Jamie Lai whom they had packed off at the Gold Coast, in what the Malaysians are calling the grudge match. “We just have to keep our head, stay focussed. Not got ahead of ourselves and stay calm,” Ashwini said, in what had been instructive throughout this stiff Round 2 encounter.