It’s difficult to determine if Saatwiksairaj Rankireddy led and Chirag Shetty followed last Sunday when the pair clinched the country’s biggest men’s doubles title at the Thailand Super 500. Or if Chirag set it all up, and Saatwik finished. But in this story of the start of a glorious chapter in Indian badminton, the chicken definitely came first.
“Everyone says Saatwik bahot khaata hai (eats too much). But I love chicken biryani!” Saatwik grumbles on his return, adding, “I always argue with everybody that I play two events (doubles and mixed), so obviously, I need all that rice.”
When he’s not thulping prawn biryani and mom’s aaloo fry (“I really like aaloo”) home at Amalapuram in East Godavari district, India’s giant-killing giant in doubles, makes it a point to find the best chicken curry-rice serving joint wherever he’s playing and chomps into the same food every night of the week.
“We usually play at the same stadiums in each city year after year. So now I’ve figured it out,” he chirps. “I play well if I get good food,” he declares. For his two outings at the French Open where the Indian pair created stirs in consecutive years without quite getting onto the podium, Saatwik had located a shawarma place in Paris close to the stadium. “Fresh chicken and vegetable shawarma,” he recalls droolingly.
Another time when the team had put up at rented apartments, Saatwik and fellow players Kidambi Srikanth and Sumeeth Reddy along with team’s chief physio Kiran cooked on all days prolifically. “Aaloo fry and chicken! There’s a big supermarket close by where you get Indian spices also. Kiran knows recipes, and we’d call up our mothers for instructions. We all cook well now, chopping, marinating – it’s all easy now,” he laughs.
Early in their partnership, Chirag Shetty worried for his playing partner and found his stubbornness about food plain irritating. “Saatwik’s a lot better now,” starts the Mumbai shuttler, “but earlier he just wouldn’t try anything except Indian food. Like, he’d starve to death but not eat something new.”
Chirag, whose family are the hotelier Shettys and who grew up in the cosmopolitan western suburbs of Mumbai, had made the transition from the Mangalorean red-chilli staple chicken kori roti to the more vinegary Japanese Katsu (chicken) curry rice, easily.
There was also the obsessive Sushi for breakfast-lunch-dinner phase for Chirag (more on that later) when playing in Australia. But all in all, while heading into Tokyo Olympics, there is peace and gluttonous contentment at the table as long as there’s one or the other version of rice and chicken curry.
It might take a few losses and some self-awareness of fitness for the fried potatoes and every other unhealthy morsel to be nudged out of the plate. But after several trials and many more errors, Saatwik and Chirag have rustled up a recipe to make their partnership work.
When India’s former doubles coach – Malaysian Tan Kim Her split the two from their respective partners and paired them, the two had bristled endlessly. Conventional badminton wisdom didn’t apply here – both played from the back of the court instinctively and the net was left unmanned leaving a massive bottomless valley of misery upfront.
“We were both individually strong players, but playing half-court games. It wasn’t clicking because both of us tried being in the back. None of us knew what to do at the net,” says Chirag, of the early days in 2014. The Malaysian coach rightly believed both had the desired attacking attitude needed in doubles (both were tall too – Saatwik, 5’11, and Chirag, 6’1”). They’d win their first-ever seniors tournament domestically in Kochi, but lost first rounds in Poland, France, and Vietnam, realising that nothing was clicking.
“After Vietnam, coach Tan took us out of the stadium and said, it’s ok if it’s not working out, we were free to split. Something happened after that talk, and we just started gelling well after that,” Chirag recalls.
Theirs were the only pairs to be broken (Saatwik played with Krishna Prasad and Chirag used to combine with MR Arjun) from among the juniors. Anointed the next big things and glued together by a gum stick of grand expectations, the duo had felt pressured to prove they were a perfect fit.
The combine was still winning at home raising hopes, but the tango was still a few months away from both stepping on the other’s toes when Chirag really broke his toe unexpectedly. “When I told people I fell down from a bike and broke my toe, they must’ve thought ‘yeh toh aawaara ladka hai, bike pe ghoomta hai’ (assumed he’s a wild thing racing bikes). Truth is I don’t know how to ride a bike. I was sitting pillion and fell – it was as undramatic as that,” Chirag recalls, even as Saatwik went off to play the World Juniors.
They’d again win an India International series, Tata Open in Mumbai and Bangladesh series in some months — with no clear indication of whether the combination was or wasn’t meant to be — internationally. Trouble was they weren’t even properly communicating. “See, I was a pucca Telugu guy and I had only 50 per cent properwala Hindi,” says Saatwik.
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“My communication skills were bad so he found me shy. He’s very funny I know now – but we weren’t talking only.” It’s when the coach lumped them in one room and on one dinner table, at tournaments abroad that they’d make headway.
“Mainly in the start, he spoke very little of Hindi and preferred hanging out with the Telugu gang. But he was essentially very nice and helpful, so I really liked him as a person. Then we developed a friendship even though we were losing internationally,” Chirag says. A flutter happened at the Syed Modi three seasons later in Lucknow when the Indians, ranked in the 50s, took World No 2 Boe-Mogensen to three sets.
India’s men’s doubles has never really taken the leap on the circuit internationally, but the duo lined up enough performances against top pairings as Chirag literally put his head down and picked up the net gauntlet, cut short the long racquet swing to learn snappy angles and subtlety with the stem, and even gave up on the dream of playing the backhand like his favourite Taufik Hidayat – since shuttles are hardly taken across the body and all taken overhead in doubles. Saatwik’s reputation for the big smash would only get enhanced in the meantime, though both were learning to rotate – as is expected at the highest level, with Saatwik no mug on the forecourt and Chirag not losing his edge on the attack from the back.
While the anxiety of their on-court compatibility would become a thing of the past – Chirag would suffer a slip disc with three weeks to go for the Commonwealth Games in 2018. “That pain taught me a lot about patience as I couldn’t get out of bed and even touch the racquet,” Chirag recalls. He’d sneak in a morning session on a Sunday before leaving on Monday, but he’d picked up a good habit of a lifetime owing to the injury. “If our team warmups start at 6.30 am, I do my pre-warm-up strengthening half an hour before everyone else,” he adds.
The team event gold and a silver in men’s doubles would be unprecedented for India at the Gold Coast, though the best player of the event was neither Saatwik nor Chirag, but Ashwini Ponnappa – from whom both had a lot to learn still. This would be followed by five straight first-round losses in the southeast Asian swing as the pairing again seemed to lose the ability to combine after heading home post-CWG. Bonding needs practice and even muscle memory needs a habit. Easy points were botched, tricky endings were fluffed as the Indians would take leads in deciders, rush to a finish, grabbing at endings and watching them slip away in a puff of smoke before the Asian Games witnessed a familiar sight of a narrow loss and a bust-up of a tantrum.
It was losing in Indonesia last month though that jolted Saatwik. “The pressure of being India’s top pair and desperation to win was the problem. I watched Roger Federer against Nadal who was all josh all the time. But Federer was so calm, not reacting at all. I knew what we needed to do – play our game, not worry about points, focus on strategy and not get angry on the partner,” Saatwik laughs. Chirag’s a cool cat on the court, but a netted easy-tap can turn Saatwik into a growling feline. “I go grrrrr, but I never show it to him. He never loses his cool on me – he won’t react, he’s already like Federer, he’ll say, arre theeke,” the Hulk laughs.
Thailand was special also because India’s doubles shuttlers have rarely enjoyed the spotlight of Finals Day. “It’s a different atmosphere with all the big players. Usually, badminton tournaments have 4-5 courts and we are mostly on side-courts. I always dreamt of playing a final when they wrap up all other courts and all lights are focussed on one show court. People are watching only your match, not like other days when things are happening on other courts and people clap and for a moment you think they are clapping for you, but you realise they aren’t.”
In Thailand last Sunday, Saatwik had no doubts whom the applause was for.
Saatwik’s father R Vishwanadham had taken his tall lad to the Gopichand academy in 2013 but never insisted he hog all the applause by playing singles. “I told coach kaisa bhi utilise karo, bas India ka baniaan pehenna hai (Just ensure he wears the India jersey),” the father recalls. A high jumper himself — he jokes Saatwik’s big jump is his pedigree before chuckling it isn’t quite — the Physical Education teacher from Rajahmundry ensured his boy played all sports: basketball, volleyball, athletics and shuttle of course, but even pace bowling in cricket.
The boy lingered longer at badminton — as late as 11.30 in the night on cement courts close to the house. He’d always dig doubles — for one, it was a perennial attack, and also like he says candidly, “My stamina was very shit. I couldn’t last more than one set. I was useless in singles.”
When he reached the Hyderabad academy, he was mesmerised by an unseen sight: K Nandagopal, elder brother of Srikanth, was on the court playing a jump-smash, leaping high in the air. “First time I saw it and I said, arrey kya maara! I slowly started doing it, but I still don’t know if I do it right,” he chortles.
Later, he’d watch videos of Koreans Lee Yong Dae and Jung Jae-Sung and Indonesians Markis Kido and Hendra Setiawan. “They are all-rounders, good at frontcourt and back. I try all their shots and in training, I play more forward,” he says.
Chirag went for a cricket summer camp too at age 6 in Mumbai but was smitten by badminton soon after he hit the first shuttle at Goregaon Sports Club where his Mani Swami Sir even taught him an imitation of the Taufik backhand. He’d never win a national title in juniors for a long time, but lit up the Mumbai circuit winning the kiddies meet – Manora championship, a city special, before joining Uday Pawar.
He aced academics – 87 percent in Class 10 and 85 in 12th, where a tutor took him through math’s derivations and integrations and his father’s friend brushed him up on accounts a month before the boards. “I wanted him to be confident at anything he chose,” says father Chandrasekhar Shetty who worried that his son was an introvert and too sincere (“He earns his own money now, but will still ask me if he has to buy a mobile or laptop.”)
While Shetty Sr was too nervous on finals day and sat in an inside room and ended up following live scores on tournament software, leaving his relatives and assembled friends to watch on his behalf, Chirag’s mother took some time to be convinced at all. “Father studied engineering and mother is MSc in Chemistry. She wanted me to pursue studies in science. Only after my CWG medals she was convinced I’d chosen right,” he adds.
When Chirag met Saatwik, he was this home-sick boy who missed Mumbai constantly in Hyderabad – not partying and malls, but his extended family and academy friends. “In sub-junior years, we used to travel for tournaments in trains. I remember going to Jaipur and loving roaming around in the city with badminton friends,” he recalls.
But soon, Chirag Shetty knew more about Saatwik’s hometown than Saatwik himself, having geekily googled everything.
“We call Chirag mini Google. His general knowledge is too damn high. He knows everything,” Saatwik mock-complains. It had started way back when they’d just met at Hyderabad. “He’ll know anything. If I say 20 people died in a pipeline blast in Amalapuram, he’ll say, No, the number was 14. He’ll argue and win about my things like hometown also!” he chuckles.
Saatwik’s favourite early memory of Chirag is how the latter taught him to pronounce the name of the Spanish clothing store Zara. “It’s not Jhara, it’s zah-rah, he’d tell me and Sai Praneeth. And we’d repeat the wrong one, and he’d correct us again,” Saatwik laughs.
He’s astonished by another of Chirag’s quirks. “He keeps watching that Kapil Sharma show. He’ll watch it one day and laugh. Next day he’ll watch it again and laugh on the same jokes! I don’t know how!”
Saatwik blurts out his other fear – “I won’t watch English movies with him,” he says, not too keen on the complex entertainment Chirag chooses, preferring his staple of Prabhas and Pawan Kalyan. Their paths met at watching the thriller Andhadhun recently, but otherwise, Saatwik lurches towards PubG with Srikanth, HS Prannoy and Manu Attri while Chirag slinks away to Netflix – Narcos and Breaking Bad and Sacred Games when away from the court.
“I’m a TV shows person, used to love F.R.I.E.N.D.S. I’m like Ross, yes maybe a little geeky. But I know people call me Wikipedia,” he says. He was also that rare child who read a newspaper Page 1 through Page last. “I never liked storybooks. I was crazy about reading every single thing in a newspaper. I wanted to be informed about everything happening in the world. Now I read news online. Never liked video games either,” he adds.
While Saatwik, the more bombastic of the two on court, likes Roger Federer, Chirag seeks inspiration from Rafael Nadal: “I love his never-say-die attitude. And he’s won 11-12 titles on clay, a surface which leads to so many injuries. He was never really gifted, but he’s incredible on those courts. I also like Usain Bolt for his attitude,” he says.
Both Saatwik and Chirag though, love playing in Europe, and want to win a title in Paris – where they’ve played some of the most entertaining matches till date and enjoy a bit of a following though they don’t quite catch the tongue. The other city the two’ll need to not lose in translation is Tokyo, where the Olympics play out in a year’s time.
While Saatwik has simple wishes – like hoping the court drift is nil, Chirag’s has been a more immersed love affair with Japan – reading about its history, philosophy and interacting with people as well as his venturing into Japanese food.
It all started when he had sushi at a Mumbai multi-cuisine. And promptly puked.
“I found it terrible and threw up, vowing never to have it again in my life. Then last year, Ashwini (Ponappa) took me to a proper Japanese restaurant where I discovered the katsu curry rice. But I also liked sushi so much the second time, I had salmon sushi for lunch, breakfast and dinner in Australia. But see, I’m Indian, so frankly I don’t like the authentic sushi that much. I prefer the one that has mayo which won’t be done in Japan, and I like sushi they serve in China or Thailand with local flavours,” he explains.
His trysts with sushi have been a little like his changing palate for badminton – moving upto the net, trading brute powerplay for creativity and subtlety, struggling initially but loving his fill of the fun in the end.
His partner Saatwik though will never try sushi, Chirag guffaws. For all things acrimonious between India’s newest doubles sensations, there’s the common wholesome and hearty chicken and rice the two always agree upon.
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