The trick didn’t stop at rattling Marcus Fernaldi Gideon. Known to be slightly more vulnerable than his partner Kevin Sanjay Sukamuljo — and we are talking the barest of tiny margins here — Gideon (28) was the slimmest of openings for India’s top doubles pairing to prise open the door. So, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty set about peppering Gideon with their attack in the semifinals of Fuzhou China Open.
The straightforward tactic of badgering the weak(er) link brought the Indians a bunch of points. But the real gains were made in drilling doubt in Kevin’s mind and snaring points from right under his nose.
“We knew he’s the weaker of the two and if he’s put under pressure then Kevin gets irritated. Cause Kevin’s the fancier guy,” Chirag explains of badminton’s most creative wizard, who can cover for his partner on a shaky day, but the effort eats into the 24-year-old’s free-flowing genius.
On Saturday, Kevin had to whiz front and back and across the court to shadow Gideon and pounce in for desperate retrieves and have his back. Consequently, the Indonesians escaped against the serious Indian upstarts who this year are increasingly looking like bonafide top-five materials.
And so the count moved to 8-0, eight matches the Indians have lost against the World No 1 Indonesians. But each encounter has loosened one screw of their game, making the Indian pair look more threatening than last time. The 21-16, 22-20 loss might’ve prolonged the wait for their first win against the ridiculously talented Indonesians, but Satwik-Chirag are inching closer. This journey to topple the top pairing is as much fun as would be the destination of actually securing the win.
The Indonesians are called the ‘Minions’ for their bouncy, busy vibe and size, but together Kevin and Gideon are the smartest players in the sport. When they steal the moon, they aren’t following blind orders from a ‘Gru’, and in fact their improvisations match their outrageous speed and skill and reaction times — which are innate.
So when the Indians led 18-16 in the second after a breakaway 21-16 opener from the Minions, Kevin brought on his disruptive weapon — the spin serve, and raced to three bunched points. Again at 20-all, and with Indians not showing signs of being rolled over, the younger Minion, varied the pace on his smash since the Indians had pounced on the harder one in the point before, and in all the frenzy got to match point with the softest of kills.
In the dying stages of the game, Indians brought out their scramble defense, but realised the Indonesians can crank up the pace at will and their plan of slowing things down to catch breath and sneak in variations might not always yield rewards.
Earlier, the Indians had proved they were up to the task of countering the Minions. They started hitting straight, but soon enough Chirag was scampering across and angling interceptions at the net.
There were avoidable errors — down to lack of poise and nothing wrong in the game technically. The flat game saw some eye to eye exchanges, with serve variations thrown in to make it a highly skilled encounter.
Crowding their returns on the forehand, the Indians were opening up yawning spaces on the other half of the court exploited at 9-10 in the first, after things had stayed even on 7-7.
While Kevin hovered around the net, not much was going past his Matrix-like returns. Kevin Sukamuljo plays at a pace that moves the shuttle 2-times faster into the opponents court and one can only imagine what Satwik-Chirag saw whizzing at them in real-time. He is like one of the Marvel or DC enhanced beings with their blurring movements, and the epithet “Minions” does no justice to how quick he can get while staying busy.
Chirag went from silly errors to inspired kills, pumped up at times with his backhand taps as the Indians tried to hassle and hustle them away from the net and pin them to the back. The Indian attack got truly going in the second, though they couldn’t string together a good enough lead to put solid pressure on the Indonesians, even while they sniped at Gideon. At 3-2 came a 52-shot rally where all four brought out some eye-popping returns, keeping the shuttle in play while down on their backsides and then from inches off the floor.
Indian defense, though needing a lot of improvement, has come a long way. And though they couldn’t hit the shuttle down (again drawn into a pace and height that Kevin dictated), Satwik and Chirag did well to pick some below-the-knee shuttles and frustrate the Indonesians.
Some serious training in gymnastics will do the Indians good for that low defense where the body is expected to curve into a C, while feet stay rooted and the racquet pointing at 90 degrees down keeps tossing them over the net. But Satwik and Chirag did well to shift the focus on Gideon, who looked stressed as the Indians threatened to break away from 13-12.
It was a series of well constructed points as Indians varied the pace, but stayed true to their attacking intent. “Yes we stuck to our game plan but Kevin came with his spin serve at 18-16 and took 3 points. But we came back level at 19-all and it was anybody’s game then,” Chirag said.
The anybody turned out to be Kevin and Gideon, but the Indonesians will be worried about just how many points Indians are conceding to unforced errors, which as time passes, the Indians will tighten and repair.
“Yes we are inching closer. A win will be there soon. Just a little more smarter and then I guess we can beat them. But the idea was right today; just a few mistakes in execution,” Chirag said.
The two top pairings with great success against the Indonesians are Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen (5-4 head to head) and Lee Yong Dae and Yoo Yeon-seong (0-3), and those four legends had an uncompromising defense.
A sturdy defense can help Indians switch their game — slow down and vary the attack to earn the lifts. For even a different game isn’t enough on its own against the world’s most exciting doubles pairing who crowds throng to watch and who put up a show like no-one else.
As India’s top doubles pairing go about figuring most other combinations in the top-ten, and are left with the Indonesians and Japanese to negotiate, the country can quickly raise its bar to expecting dazzling results from Satwik and Chirag week in, week out. But the moon’s there for the taking only if the Minions are beaten. That the Indians are mighty close, even if the losses pile up, is what makes Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty imminently watchable as the most-vaunted thing in Indian badminton.