Six years ago, coaches Pullela Gopichand in Hyderabad and Uday Pawar in Mumbai told their respective wards Saatwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty that their future lay in ditching singles ambitions and embracing doubles.
On Sunday, they became the first-ever Indians to win a Super 500 championship, beating reigning world champions Chinese Li Jun Hui and Liu Yu Chen 21-19, 18-21, 21-18 at the Thailand Open.
This is India’s first top title in what is badminton’s speediest, strongest and toughest event to crack — the men’s doubles, dominated by the powerful and blitzy Indonesians, Chinese, Koreans and Danes.
“I watched with tingling excitement as two young Indians showed a lot of wisdom and brains as well as control over the shuttle,” gushed India’s foremost doubles player, 86-year-old Nandu Natekar, watching from Pune. “There are always four very fast players on court in doubles at the topmost level. To see two of them being Indian was a fabulous treat,” he added.
But the alchemy of power, speed, work ethic, motivation and two men who could combine winningly just didn’t happen. “Either just one talent cropped up or it was tough to get two guys to complement each other and work harder than ever together,” says Gopichand, glad that the threshold has now been crossed.
In Saatwik-Chirag, India have unearthed world-class talent as they came through a draw which had the top six pairings of the world.
“What we saw with Saatwik-Chirag is Indians able to match and counter speeds of opponents and able to defend and counter-attack,” explained former doubles player and now coach Vimal Kumar.
The 22-year-olds play aggressive badminton, going toe-to-toe with the best in the world and maintaining a relentless pace of punishing exchanges as are seen in top doubles. On Sunday, the Indians dominated in the first set, absorbed the loss in the second and masterfully thwarted the Chinese to prevail in one of the most entertaining matches featuring a pair of Indians.
Chirag comes from a Mumbai family of hoteliers, the Shettys, and chose badminton ahead of a promising academic career when he was still a teenager. A 6’1” who adapted to crouch at the net when paired with Saatwik and who can cleverly dictate the game as a playmaker, Chirag boasts a steady defence to go with his own attacking power from the forecourt.
Saatwiksairaj is India’s biggest talent in doubles with a monstrous smash in his armoury from the backcourt, where he threatens and bombards opponents. Born to a physical education teacher from East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh, the big-shouldered lad can power through rival defences like a battle tank, but showed tremendous dexterity at the net against the Chinese.
“Their win in the semis against the Koreans was against players who are hero-worshipped by youngsters. But our Indian boys knew you can’t respect an opponent too much if you plan to beat them,” said Uday Pawar, Chirag’s coach in his formative years who took the decision to steer him towards doubles.
Unlike tennis doubles, where fitness demands are decidedly easier than for singles, badminton doubles demands a specific skill-set that’s high on pace and power, besides net play and reflexes. The intensity of the exchanges is such that margins are very small and Saatwik-Chirag’s breakthrough signals India’s entry into a discipline that is considered the most entertaining art form with crazed following in Korea, China and Indonesia.
Uday Pawar recalls another year when he called Chirag Shetty, who was sitting in his room brooding after a third straight first-round loss in Singapore. “I asked him, thakaa hai kya (Are you tired)? He said, no. So I blasted him: ‘Toh room mein baithke kiske aane ka intezzar kar raha hai (Then what are you doing sitting in your room and waiting)? Go book a practice court and train.”
The days of Indian doubles shuttlers waiting for a weaker opponent are in the past now. On Sunday, they beat the very best.