The biggest trick pulled by Saatwiksairaj Rankireddy against the Chinese pairing of Li Jun Hui and Liu Yu Chen was in convincing the world champions that a devil lurked round the corner. When all he did was throw shadows in the mirror and befuddle them both with the imminent threat of a big game he kept devilishly locked up.
When the unseeded Saatwik and Chirag Shetty upset the third-seeded Chinese to win India’s biggest men’s doubles title at the Thailand Super 500, the 21-19, 18-21, 21-18 score held so many little deceptions that this became a subtle outwitting, not quite the savage flexing of power.
The Chinese were stumped in the opening game when the Indians literally scored off jabs while threatening to unveil the power-punches. These were proper tappers – returns of serves, or in slightly more prolonged affairs, the third shot. Saatwiksairaj, the big-built man known for his firepower from the back, actually parked himself at the net – keen to not exert his sore shoulder, while Chirag (who is no mug on the steep attack) manned the back.
Saatwik’s reputation for bazooka smashes is so overwhelming that no one – certainly not the Chinese – saw the bird pecks poking at their defence from the front.
With a mix of crafty short serves and angled returns, Saatwik won the short, snappy points while not backing out from the flat exchanges. The game stayed so hypnotically focused on the mid-court with attacks seeking to dissect down the middle that Li-Liu could not have anticipated Saatwik’s flick serve – a looping goofball of a shuttle that floated to the back and gave Indians the 20-18 game point. Shetty would then kiss his racquet frame a point later and curl one towards Liu who could only net it back.
Normalcy resumed in the second but not before the Indians took a 4-1 lead laced with the persistent threat of hassling the Chinese like a mosquito’s buzz. The game opened up a tad getting Saatwik pushed back and taming the high shots, prolonging the rallies a little more. The Indians led at the changeover and till 18-16 when Li-Liu pounced at the next five points in a flurry to level matters.
Still the fear loomed. Even when the Chinese scampered away to 4-1 lead in the decider. In a match that was distinctly technical and tactical, the Indians would now go on to find their patterned combinations – a repeated cross-stitch on the court with a diagonal rhythm as Saatwik took his place at the back while Chirag was a pendulum in the front. The Chinese fears weren’t unfounded as the Indians would take a 13-9 lead creating real panic among the Chinese coach and the two players who ran into frequent dissonance.
The Indian defence was watertight by now and Chirag, in one of those carefully conducted moves, bisected the Chinese and yet another time pushed one across with both opponents stuck on the same flank. At some point in this lead, the Indians broke the Chinese resolve to fight back and as the rallies got frenzied – the longest saved for the last – the Indians inched closer to a win with the Chinese not so much snapping at their heels as marching in step but one safe length back.
A cerebral victory
When the winner came – a Chirag straight shot whizzing behind the Chinese, the debut champions would fall to the ground and the coach would run onto the court. This was a cerebral victory – something brute power couldn’t have conjured up.
The pair had picked a silver at the Commonwealth Games last year but on Sunday, the big story was how they’d pulled out a win leaving behind the annoying weakness of not managing to close out matches.
This was skill on a bedrock of good defence. Saatwik revealed a delicate side to his game – of drives and interceptions from the front while Chirag had the clever shots and variations in pace. Moreover, for a young pair that had never played a big final on the pro circuit, this was confidence oozing through their assured strides on court.
The shuttles played faster on finals day and anyone quick on the net had the edge in a rally. The Indians weren’t exactly stomping at the net, but played like they belonged – like they had pulled off those audacious cheeky shots a hundred times before.
There were no nerves visible, no worry lines or confusion when the Chinese tried asserting their world ranking on the match. Perhaps the biggest giveaway was the complete lack of indication that they’d lost the second game despite being three points from a straight-game victory.
While Indonesian coaches will be credited with the assurance with which Saatwik and Chirag played the parallel game and negotiated the flats, the Indian duo showed the adaptability to take on the Chinese game even on their terms.
“The final point was great of course,” said Chirag later, “but more the first game. Winning that was crucial because that gave us the confidence that yes, we can beat them.” Chirag conceded the beauty of the match lay in concluding it. “Obviously, if we’d kept thinking about winning the tournament, we’d have messed it up. So we didn’t and just focused on the next point.”
The Indians rotated well too, sharing the attacking responsibilities – given Saatwik needed to guard his shoulder. “Rotation was much better today,” he added. While the victory is a giant step for doubles in India, life will only get tougher with all the attention that a title invites.
“They will be watched and marked from hereon. So while they certainly belong to the top league, how they respond to others reading their game will be interesting,” national coach P Gopichand said. For the two men, first-time gold medallists, this can only increase their appetite.