Saatwiksairaj Rankireddy watched it from Indonesia at the start of this swing of tournaments; he had imbibed the spirit playing next week in Japan, and by the time Thailand rolled in, the winds from Wimbledon were soothing his usually jumpy nerves. India’s badminton doubles sensation recalls watching his favourite Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final this year and deciding in a split-second he wanted to play like him. “When people think Saatwik, they think anger and ‘josh’ – that’s how I’ve been playing,” says the young player, a beast of a smash player from the back court. “But I’m a big fan of Federer. I watched him at Wimbledon this time and decided that’s how I want to play – he won’t show any emotion. He plays calmly,” says India’s biggest doubles talent in badminton.
That wave of serenity has been the single-biggest change seen on court, when the Saatwik-Chirag Shetty pairing have played these last three weeks. It fetched them a sensational 22-20, 22-24, 21-9 in 63 minutes over Korean former world champs Ko Sung Hyun – Shin Baek Cheol on Saturday at the Thailand Open. This was also the biggest day for men’s doubles in the country as this was the first pairing to make the finals of a Super 500 event.
Jwala Gutta – V Diju have of course made the year-end Tour finals of mixed doubles earlier, but India’s pickings on the higher levels of the circuit have been quite scanty; in fact none.
Saatwik-Chirag will play world champions Chinese Li Jun Hui – Liu Yu Chen in the Sunday finals searching for India’s first ever doubles title since the current tournament structure came into being.
It was Chirag Shetty though who after two seasons of ending on the wrong side of “anybody’s game after 17-17 in the decider” situations, grabbed the third set against the Koreans by the scruff of the net and was in devastating form on the forecourt.
After claiming the opening set, the Indians had two match points in the second after trailing 12-19 and 16-20. But after the Koreans levelled to force the decider winning 24-22, Chirag had had enough. “We played really well and in the end it was all a bit mad and Chirag just did not give them a chance,” Saatwik chortled.
There’s history to two seasons of near-misses – a close loss to World No 1s Kevin-Gideon at French Open, losing at Asian Games after being 19-18 up and a 2017 heartcrusher against Boe-Mogensen, from 18-18 in the decider. All matches lost to needless hurrying while closing out. “We’ve worked on being calm. We don’t rush now. Idea’s to play our natural game and not hurtle towards finishing fast,” Chirag says. The duo in their early 20s with all the attendant impatience and immaturity earlier had lost at the biggest stages – Worlds and Asiad, rushing to utter ruin. Saturday, with a sprinkling of Federer inspiration, was to be different.
It started with how they responded to pressure while levelling at 13-13 in the opener – not by trying to play faster and hitting harder. After securing the first set, they’d show great poise to get to 20-all from 12-19 down. “We lost the second but we were playing right game. I focused on taking the first stroke and not thinking too much. We usually get pumped up and lose it. Today we defended well and in the third tactically, my serving and receiving was spot on,” Shetty said.
Shetty’s Federersque inspiration are Danish pair Boe – Mogensen. “It’s not assured you will win 100 percent of you stay calm on crucial points. But they’ve told me I’ll win 70 percent times at least if I don’t get desperate to collect points at that juncture and keep it simple.”
The Koreans are always challenging in doubles – Shin, a creative artist and Ko, a monster hard hitter, both sturdy defenders making it tough for opponents to finish. But India’s most talented pairing eschewed the usual rush of blood and let ice flow through veins on the day.
Saatwik besides letting a general calm wash over him, has also diversified his attack. According to Arun Vishnu, doubles coach at the national camp, the hulkishly built Saatwik has been trying to vary his smashes and mixing drops to chisel his brute smashes. Coach Siadatt accompanying the team at Thailand said as much: “His half smashes from behind and Chirag’s good drives and quick net-play were crucial. And very few errors.”
The effects of this win back home run deeper. National coach Pullela Gopichand reckons it’s a start of an exciting time for doubles, which is starved of good news beyond Jwala-Ashwini’s landmark wins.
“What they’ve achieved here is really good. This could easily have been the World Championships or Olympics or any of the big events because all the top players were playing here. Having said that they’ve been playing well over the past few months. And they’re very young and in the years to come, it’s good not only for them but also for Indian doubles in general,” he said of the pair’s possible surge into Top 10.
Chirag Shetty has always been level-headed off court. He tends to be happy with a win for half an hour that day and in case of a loss will mope for max an hour the same evening, his father jokes. It’s the sort of temperament his quick-to-rage partner needed to internalise. The massive-smashing Saatwik though needed some tempering and was helped along by his mixed doubles partner, the more accomplished Ashwini Ponappa. “I always think of her fighting spirit even in (men’s) doubles matches. Even at 16-20 down she has a tremendous attitude,” he says.
That, and his new-found Federer-inspired philosophy as he says the pairing are in search of “playing good quality matches, not simply winning anyhow.” Reputations of opponents – Chinese or Koreans – will hardly matter. For Saatwiksairaj’s new motto is playing like Roger: “You know how he looks at points,” he ventures, “aaya toh kya, gayaa toh kya, bas calmly khelna hai.” (Points will come and go. We just play calmly.)