Satwik and Chirag: ‘We are in good players group, want to be in the champions group’

Earlier this month, Satwik and Chirag became the first Indian men’s doubles pair to win gold at the Commonwealth Games and now they have become the first Indian men’s doubles pair to win a medal at the BWF World Championships.

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty (front) of India celebrate after beating Japan’s Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi in the Men’s Doubles Quarter Final of the BWF World Championships.

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty (front) of India celebrate after beating Japan’s Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi in the Men’s Doubles Quarter Final of the BWF World Championships. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Earlier this month, Satwik and Chirag became the first Indian men’s doubles pair to win gold at the Commonwealth Games and now they have become the first Indian men’s doubles pair to win a medal at the BWF World Championships.

On Friday afternoon in Tokyo, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty entered the Badminton World Championships record books. Beating defending world champions Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi 24-22, 15-21, 21-14 in an hour and 15 minutes, they not just made it to the semifinals, but also became the first Indian men’s doubles pair to be assured of a medal at the BWF World Championships.

As they savour this taste of history, they admit they are not yet satisfied. “(We are feeling) very unhappy,” Satwik jokes in the mixed zone following the win over the tournament’s number 2 seeds. “We don’t want to stop here. Before the Commonwealth Games, we set our mind that we want to do well at the worlds as well.”

It would have been hard to live up to such words had the two players allowed themselves to be caught up in the adulation and celebration of having already scripted two other landmark moments within a few months before reaching this point. Earlier this month, Satwik and Chirag became the first Indian men’s doubles pair to win gold at the Commonwealth Games. What’s more, they were linchpins of the historic Thomas Cup gold winning team in May.

India’s ace men’s doubles pair could have coasted. With just a couple of weeks between the Commonwealth Games (CWG) and the World Championships, who would have begrudged 25-year-old Chirag and 22-year-old Satwik soaking in their achievement?

Turns out it was the two of them. The fact that they weren’t planning on letting the intensity down cemented out within hours of their CWG triumph in Birmingham on August 8.

Having won CWG gold, Chirag and Satwik had gone out for dinner in the evening. It wasn’t a big bash – just a small gathering of coaches, teammates and Satwik’s brother Ramcharan.

With a wide variety of tastes to cater to, doubles coach Matthias Boe suggested an Italian joint. There was just one problem. Satwik’s tastes are a lot more closely aligned to the fiery Telugu cuisine of his hometown of Amalapuram than continental European fare. “We had some pizza and that sort of stuff. The language on the menu wasn’t in English. They only had pork or beef, and I only eat chicken. I didn’t eat too much because I didn’t like it. But once in a while, we have to adjust because we are in a group. It was fun talking to everyone, but at the end, I was still hungry,” he recalls.

That lack of satisfaction held true not just for the dinner but also the victory it was meant to be celebrating. “Even before the CWG, we knew the world championships were just weeks away. We knew both were major tournaments and the worlds was probably the biggest tournament of the year. If it were any other tournament, like a World Tour 500, we would have skipped it to restart and refocus. But the worlds are big. So, we are mentally prepared.

“It’s not like ‘ arre, ek aur tournament khelna hai (we have to play one more tournament). We were prepared for two tournaments in a row. Instead of a week-long tournament, it was as if we had a month-long tournament. We are not satisfied with just the CWG gold medal,” says Satwik.

Team coach Boe tells them as much. While there was no getting away from a few high-profile felicitations on their return to India from Birmingham, Satwik and Chirag knew they could not afford to get distracted beyond a point. Once Satwik returned to Hyderabad to the Pullela Gopichand Academy where he trains, he wouldn’t make the trip home to Vijaywada. His mother came to meet him, but Satwik is yet to meet the rest of his family. That’s exactly what Boe tells him. “He told us, ‘Don’t go for dinners. Don’t go out. Don’t meet family. If you want to talk, talk on phone. When you are going for the world championships, be prepared,’” Satwik recalls. “He reminded us there weren’t going to be any rest days. He told us there could be no partying. He said, ‘You can celebrate with your gold, but don’t get satisfied with this. You aren’t done yet.”

That’s how Satwik sees it as well. Just before the start of the world championships, he shared with Sportstar the hunger for success. “Commonwealth Games was a good win, but we just had a starter. Now, (we are) waiting for lunch and dinner (the world championships).”

The fact that Satwik and Chirag didn’t zone out after CWG helped even though they did not have much time to train for Tokyo. “It helped that we weren’t very exhausted after the CWG. In the past, I would have played mixed doubles also, which would leave me very tired. This time, I was only playing doubles, which made things easier for me. Also, we were not playing really hard matches. We had a few easy matches at the start before being tested in the semis and final,” he says.

Satwik headed to the world championships fully fit, which is a big bonus because he has had unlucky fitness issues. Much like heading into Tokyo this year fresh off the CWG gold, the pair had entered the 2019 worlds in Basel with the confidence of playing some of their best badminton and winning their first World Tour 500 title in Thailand. “We were in really good touch before that world championships, but had to withdraw because of a knee injury I picked up. This time, I feel, I am in a lot more control of things. That’s why we are playing much better. As we are growing, the knowledge is improving and we are getting more consistent. These small things that I’m aware of now help me a lot . I know how to take care of my body. How to recover, how to sleep well,” says Satwik.

The ability to sleep well, he admits, was put to the test on the night before his and Chirag’s quarterfinal clash with Hoki and Kobayashi. “I got up three times at 5am, 6am and 7am. I kept thinking I have to go and play an early match. There was just so much excitement for me,” Satwik says.

Chirag went through a similar rollercoaster. “Last night, I was quite excited. Even in my sleep, although I slept quite early, there was some excitement in my body. I was waking up a lot because there was a lot of adrenaline in me,” Chirag says.

That adrenaline was visible in the match. But unlike how they would deal with it in the past, Satwik and Chirag managed it well. After holding the early lead in the first game, they let Hoki and Kobayashi recover. The Japanese, in fact, held two game points, both of which were saved. Satwik knows why it’s different now. “Compared to earlier, we are in much better shape mentally. We believe in ourselves a lot more. In the past we would tighten up a lot in the end of games when things got close.

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“Today we were in the zone. Even when we were down, we thought it’s our game not theirs. They are going to make mistakes. We kept our calm. Matthias was telling us how to control pressure situations. Because we have played many high-pressure matches like the Thomas Cup and also the CWG final, we have a much better understanding of how to stay calm,” Satwik says.

Every time the match situation got tight, Satwik and Chirag went back to the game that makes them so dangerous. Chirag shares the technical insight. “We got into trouble when we got caught in the exchanges of those flat drives. In the second game we got carried away in trying to match that. But in the third game we were much calmer and focused on simply keeping the shuttle down. We tried to get them to lift the shuttle every time.”

Referencing Satwik’s words, the Indian pair is now well into the main course at the world championships, but their appetite is far from sated. Next up are Malaysia’s Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik, who have beaten the Indians in each of the five matches they have played so far. Satwik thinks it’s time to turn the lopsided head-to-head around.

“We are not here to play semis or final. We want to win. We are at a stage where we are good players. But the problem is that there are lot of good players and only a few champion players. Champions are different. Good players can beat anyone on their day, but champion players do it every time. We are in the good players group but we want to be in the champions group. We know we can be there,” he says.

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