Three-fourths of the way into their men’s doubles quarterfinals in the Malaysia Open, few would have given Chirag Shetty and men’s much hope. Their opponents Liu Yu Chen and Ou Xuan Yi were unseeded in Kuala Lumpur, but don’t read too much into that.
Liu is a silver medallist from the Tokyo Olympics and his pairing with Yi, formed just a few months back, had already seen plenty of success, including a title at the World Tour Finals last month. And for much of the match between the Indian and Chinese pairs, it was clear why the latter duo is seen as China’s next big men’s doubles unit.
They had already won the first game and when Liu uncorked a breathtaking no-look backhand drive winner in the second, it capped a rush of points that saw Indians staring down the barrel at 10-17.
As it turns out, the premier Indian men’s doubles pair pulled off one of their greatest-ever heists on the circuit. They clawed back point after point and won the second game 22-20. Then they made the momentum shift in the decisive third game, where they steamrolled past their shell-shocked opponents 21-9 to make their way to the semifinals of the Malaysia Open.
“At 17-10 down, not many things were going our way,” Chirag would admit later. But where others might have wilted, what worked for Chirag and Satwik was to hit back even harder.
It was the Indians who were leading the first game, 11-10, at the interval, but that was when things began to go wrong.
“The first 11 points we were leading, but after that, we didn’t have the rhythm,” Chirag would say later. They had to be content with letting the Chinese dictate the pace of the rallies and was bamboozled by Liu in the front-court.
At the same point in the second game, coach Matthias Boe told them to force the pace more and take shots earlier in the rally. He didn’t try to sugarcoat things. In the interval, he could be heard telling them that the Chinese pair were good and were bound to hit some incredible winners, but if they wanted to stand a chance, they needed to play even faster.
At an earlier point in their career, Boe’s pep talk might not have worked. But this version of Satwik and Chirag, ranked 5th in the world, is a much-improved version.
A few months back, when summing up their 2022 badminton men’s doubles season, Satwik had spoken about a change in his and Chirag’s mindset when approaching difficult matches against elite opponents.
“Generally, in the past, when we were playing against our idols, we’d think a lot of things before playing our shots. We’d be thinking if we play this stroke, they will counter it with something special. So you are respectful and not as aggressive. When we were youngsters, we never thought of winning. We just thought we have to play well. But as we have matured, we have realised there is a difference between putting up a good fight and winning. That’s the difference between a good player and a champion player,” he had told Sportstar then.
On Friday at Kuala Lumpur, even when they were in a seven-point deep hole, Satwik and Chirag played exactly like champion players ought to. “We really believed in ourselves at that point,” Chirag says.
10-17 soon became 13-17 and while Liu managed to break that series, the Indians would win another six straight points to take a 19-18 lead. The Indians indeed had a couple of crucial net cords that fell helpfully, including one that gave them game point at 21-20, but it was their play that set it up.
With Yi and Liu pouncing on any marginally short lift, they kept the shuttles as flat as they could, with the Chinese pair forced into making errors. “After being down 17-10, we had to believe in our serve and also the first two, three shots of the rally. That belief that we can catch the first 2-3 strokes and keep it below the net was critical,” Chirag said.
The decider was a no contest, with the Chinese pair’s confidence completely shot. “We could see that they had lost confidence. On the other hand, we got a lot of confidence. Then when we were 11-6 up, we thought this is our game. We knew there was no need to panic because we saw their body language and saw they were down. We were confident and played our game,” Satwik would admit later.