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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Smash hit: Satwik-Chirag enter Paris final

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty won their French Open men's doubles semifinal on Saturday. After quarters in 2017 and semis in 2018 at the same venue, India's dynamic duo make their first Super 750 finals.

Written by Shivani Naik | Updated: October 27, 2019 9:35:15 am
Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty beat Hiroyuki Endo and Yuta Watanabe of Japan 21-11, 25-23 in the French Open semifinals. (File Photo)

The real fun began after Satwiksairaj Rankireddy had boomed his customary smashes, Chirag Shetty had played his clever set-ups and the Japanese opponents had lived up to their general motto: of never making life easy for Indian shuttlers. Nozomi Okuhara, that mascot of breathless barter known too well to Indians, was not on the court. Yet there had to be a mammoth 50-shot rally as Yuta Watanabe/ Hiroyuki Endo, seeded 5th, ranked 6th in the world, collapsed to a 21-11, 25-23 loss, sending the sensational Indian pairing into their first ever Super 750 final.

Chirag Shetty is happy about the calm that the Indians could summon after the stormy, blitzy exchanges with the left-right opponents, the hallmark of this win. Which makes the 50-shot rally mighty crucial even if – spoiler alert – Indians didn’t nick that one. But such exacting exchanges break spirits and badger the limbs into giving up. That the Indians could tide over the “50” is what the duo will remember for years to come.

The Indians were on their third match point at 21-20 after leading 20-18. Satwik would start with a flick serve against the southpaw Watanabe – an All England mixed doubles champion. What followed was a series of crosses with the Japanese frustrating the Indians by lifting the shuttle alright and drawing out the shoulder-searing smash, but defending with gusto. The lower the shuttle dipped, the more the Japanese retrieved with Endo fanning down the back.

At one point three of the four players were in differing stages of imbalance trying to get off the floor, but the shuttle kept its date with the pendulum prolonging a rally that was coming off the back of another 40-shotter and lucky net chord. It would end with Chirag cornered in the front and reaching out helplessly as the return from Endo bisected the Indians and Satwik couldn’t reach this one in time with Chirag felled.

The French federation would tweet out soon after the point:

Chirag remembers it vividly: “The last 3-4 rallies of the match were extremely extremely difficult. We were almost getting cramps I would say. At 19-all and 20-19. Even though the rallies were long and 80-90 percent of the times we were the ones who were hitting. So we were the ones getting more tired. Yet we could extend those. We went 25-23, so we could play 40-50 stroke rallies for at least 6-7 points more, so I’m pretty happy the way we played with the last few points,” he told Express.

Paris is where Satwik-Chirag really come into their own – they’ve upgraded themselves from quarters to semis to finals now. They had lost 26-24 in the second at the Stade de Coubertin in the French capital, last year. Before that the first time they rendezvoused with the Parisians was when they had downed Mads Conrad Petersen and Mads Pieler Kolding, a giant of a man at 6-ft-7 in 2017, winning a see-saw 22-20, 12-21, 21-19. Drawing the big Danes into a nerve wrecker, the Indians had drawn out a doomed drive instead of a flick return, sending the crowd in a tizzy.

2019 – Paris knew the two mop tops well now, but they were finding newer reasons to adore this fresh pairing.

Paris has that effect on the two. Pluck them from injury, fatigue, poor form, viral fever, or all of those and plop them into Paris, and oui! the Indian pairing will set the courts on fire. After two wins against World No 8 and World No 2 (reigning world champs), it was the turn of the efficient Japanese to blink and then never stop blinking as the Indians went ballistic in the semifinals.

“Final point was extremely important. We had chances at 20-18 as well. We had the chance of finishing the game but somehow they got it back. It was an extremely tough and a very big rally. After that 20-all they got a net chord point and it became 20-all. Even when they were coming back after our match points we just kept our calm. And when we won final point, just really happy that we could keep our calm,” Chirag added.

They play World No 1 Indonesian Gideon/Sukamuljo in the finals on Sunday. But it was a Saturday to remember. Dying minutes of Saturday back in India, in fact, and a never-say-die pair of Indians.

Chirag Shetty had a sturdy start to the match – a rare occurrence as he takes time to settle. In the semis though, the 22-year-old started with such assurance that he was a treat to watch as he puppeteered from the front.

Very little can go wrong with the Satwik smash – it’s pretty much a two step onomatopoeic routine, wind-up, thwack, let loose. That bit was on the money, even as the Indians rotated smoothly to pocket the first set 21-11.

Fast-forward to the endgame, for the Japanese were not going to go down without a fight. They led 3-0, 8-4 in the second before the Indians reappeared in the rearview mirror, vrooming their engines noisily and taking the midgame lead. The Japanese would be level at 14-14, and despite falling back to 20-18, go right upto 20-all. Chirag was scything in, taking this to match point. The first one, that is.

It was on their second match point that the short, snappiness and whacking powerplay paved the way for a thrilling drama of desperate retrieves and dogged defense where you think no team deserves to lose (a passing feeling for a partisan of course, easily shrugged aside).

The four titans would play out an almighty 40-shot rally with crisscrosses and a trail of sweaty effort. Next, the point would end in the only way unfairness can wink and chuckle – a net chord for the Japanese.

Chirag was paving, and Endo kept saving in what was a tug of war by the wiry warriors. This would’ve counted as the moment of the match except the next time Indians had a match point – it went 10 shots, 5 back and forths further.
This time it was a 50-shot rally played in 42 seconds, and the stadium was buzzing, the crowd loving a pairing they’ve only watched playing thrillers, while knocking down reputations.

The excitement got the French singing like in a football stadium.

Later Chirag was amused by the reception. “The French crowd waited outside the stadium on the main road and in the restaurants close by and started clapping out of nowhere,” he said.

The Indians might be in Top 10 range, but they’ve needed a week like this last one to really be counted amongst the biggies. That 50-shot rally saw Indians match the higher ranked pair in poise and plunder. And finally, they would close out the match at 25-23; now firmly anointed a bonafide top pair, also an exciting one.

So, many anxious moments later and with a good helping of some solid poise, hardened in a foundry that’s Parisian and pristine, India now have Super 750 finalists. Expect fireworks on Sunday from Indian badminton’s best entertainers and a crowd that’s adopting the Indians as their own.

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