It will remain an endearingly Indian part of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy’s game — respect and grace towards an opponent, no matter how ruthlessly he smashes a shuttle in their general direction.
The big bear from India’s crackling new men’s doubles pairing, dubbed Baaloo — Bagheera, spoke almost with a measure of empathy for his two Chinese opponents — World No. 3 Li Jun Hui and Liu Yu Chen, who went down startled in straight sets.
“We know the struggle of tall players. We know their weakness in bending and how they can’t move fast,” he said, clucking his tongue at the familiar torture of being tall. He is a six footer himself.
“We knew if we don’t give them (height on the shuttle to) attack, they will panic,” he added, ruminating on the time during the break when Liu looked so frustrated and helpless, he kept shaking his head muttering away.
This was after Satwik and partner, Chirag Shetty cut them down 21-19, 21-15 in the quarters of the China Masters at the Haixia Olympic Centre. It wasn’t a brutal smash-fest between four tall players; just a very intelligent takedown by the Indians who disarmed the two towers with their shuttle placement.
Li Jun Hui and Liu Yu Chen, playing as kings of their jungle at home in Fuzhou, China, are former world champions from 2018. Both uniformly 24 are being primed to lead China’s men’s doubles challenge at Tokyo Olympics next year at a nice winning age of 25.
They are identical physical specimen looming on the crowded doubles court at over 190 cms. The court appeared to expand in front of their eyes as the Indians found gaps to keep them firmly at bay.
The Indians were comfortable playing in China. “I like playing against the crowd,” Satwik would say relishing the idea of downing Chinese on their turf. Chirag had done a better recce of their support group in the crowd that raised a din. It was a group of Indian students, pursuing medicine in Fuzhou, the city close to Taipei, known for its footwear and garments manufacturing. “There were 5-6 people but yes they’re extremely loud and definitely good enough to scare the other Chinese supporters!” Chirag said.
He had a spot of bother — when a handful of his serves were faulted — he suspects by service judges who were from Taiwan or Hong Kong and hence “biased”.
“But there was nothing I could do except focus on next point,” he said. And focus he did. The Mumbai lad came out charging at the net, eager to finish off the point and slash at the shuttle in his trademark way.
Indians stuck to a flat game, denying the Chinese any aerial manoeuvrability, assiduously keeping the shuttle low. Things were pretty even till 8-all, when Chirag poised himself for the cross defence — a fetching interception. He would swat his racquet at an angle and turn every block and push into a cross kill with the tall Chinese stranded at midcourt struggling to figure his kill at the net. At 18-all he got faulted again, when he really got charged up and slashed like a sword – not quite a full blooded smash but a neat stab steeping down the front court.
The best the Chinese managed was attacks on the body. With a workable defence, the Indians refused to budge taking the first comfortably despite score reading 21-19.
At 6-6 in the second, the Indians were tested. Satwik kept smashing from the back but the shuttles were considerably slower on the day and Chirag took matters in his hand and smashed from the front.
“When I’m in the front court, I usually hold the racquet a little higher so there’s the shorter swing… From the back court I hold as low as possible, so that I have a bigger swing and smashes are harder,” he explained.
He switched in a jiffy in that point. The Indians broke away thereafter at 15-12 and using every inch of the court to pinpoint their winners, made the tall rivals look considerably small.
“We were defending the shuttle quite well and we gave very few points while defending and instead got a few points while defending. So we were able to convert those defensive strokes into attack so that was the main thing that helped us win the match today,” Chirag said. Coach Flandy Limpele was most pleased with how they stuck to their gameplan. “The way they attacked was nice. They have their own style in kill shots, and Speed and power is getting much better,” he said.
In the semis, they run into Indonesian World No. 1 Gideon — Kevin. “Play with good strategy and don’t make mistakes,” the coach warns. Satwik believes it’ll be more than just tactics.
“Kevin especially plays a lot of mind-games. We’ve never played them at 100 percent, only 30 percent. Let’s see what we can do tomorrow,” he says. Cerebral deconstruction will be part of the plan in this humdinger. Indians have lost to the “Minions”, springy energy balls with brains ticking faster than most, a good 7 times. “Need to be stronger mentally,” Satwik adds.