How Satwik and Chirag won from multiple match points down

Former national coach Pullela Gopichand believes Indonesia's vaunted heritage ended up working in India’s favour.

India's Satwiksairaj Rankireddy (left) and Chirag Shetty react after winning over Indonesia's Kevin Sanjaya and Mohammad Ahsan during the first doubles match at Thomas Cup finals.   -  AP

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy would have a revelatory moment of confusion speaking in the mixed zone after his and Chirag Shetty’s win over the scratch pair of Kevin Sanjaya and Muhammad Ahsan in the doubles match of the Thomas Cup finals. “We were looking to get revenge,” gushed Rankireddy after sealing a 18-21, 23-21, 21-19 victory that gave India a near decisive 2-0 lead in the Thomas Cup final on Sunday.

The 21-year-old quickly corrected himself. Rankireddy and Shetty didn’t actually need to get revenge on the Indonesian duo. They had beaten this combination in 2018 the only time they played earlier.(Rankireddy was probably thinking of his 0-11 record against Sanjaya and Marcus Gideon – who wasn’t even in the Indonesian side). While they’d never actually lost to Sanjaya and Ahsan, it is telling that Rankireddy, even if instinctively, believed he probably had but also that he was confident of turning things around.

India went into the Thomas Cup final as first time finalists against 14 times champion Indonesia. On paper, the teams were actually fairly balanced, but the lopsided title record led to a public perception that India were massive underdogs against a side considered badminton royalty in team events, with a divine right to rule. To upset that order was heresy enough. Only the most partisan Indian supporters expected a 3-0 curb stomp.

But the fact of the matter was that Indonesia’s past gave no advantage to the current team. Indeed former national coach Pullela Gopichand believes Indonesia's vaunted heritage ended up working in India’s favour. While India were playing with nothing to lose and were hungry for success, Indonesia played with the weight of history on their shoulders and crumbled under the pressure.

“It’s not going to be fun for them when they return,” Gopichand says of Indonesia, with more than a touch of glee. A few days ago, Gopichand had told Sportstar that India making the final was like the cricket team reaching the final of the 1983 World Cup.

AS IT HAPPENED

Indonesia's burning passion for badminton draws another cricket analogy. “Think Pakistan cricket and dial it up to 10. If India loses it’s ok. They come back and no one bothers them at the airport. Indonesia losing – especially against India -- is unthinkable. It’d be like the stories of Pakistan losing to Zimbabwe and players quietly sneaking in at the airport,” he chuckles.

According to Gopichand, in a tie that was evenly placed on court, the decisive swing of momentum occurred not specifically when India had the lead but when they resisted long enough for Indonesia to start panicking. “That’s when you could see the pressure building. The moment they started doubting themselves, they were done. That is what makes a difference. Once the momentum is on your side, that’s when you see 3-0 results,” Gopichand says.

Gopichand noticed it in Lakshya Sen’s match when the Indian, after dropping the first game, didn’t fade away but forced a 11-7 lead in the second game. “At that moment, you could sense that (Anthony) Ginting forgot all sense of strategy and just tried to finish the points as quickly as he could. He played entirely into Lakshya’s game and that’s where he lost it,” he says.

 

Rankireddy and Shetty did not have the advantage of playing an opponent known to have a history of fragility. Albeit with different partners, both Sanjaya (11-0) and Ahsan (3-2) had a winning record against the Indian pair.  But the template was the same. “This match was quite close. But what Satwik and Chirag did successfully was to create doubt,” says Gopichand. 

What's more, they did it under immense pressure, on the brink of defeat. Down 18-21 and 18-20, the Indians were on the ropes. They had saved a couple of match points already, but the end seemed near. The only thing left was for Ahsan, a veteran of six Thomas Cup campaigns, to put a ribbon on the point, pick up the win and let the scoreline read 1-1 to India and Indonesia after two matches in final. It was a hard shot to mess up -- forehand kill shot from about five feet away into an open court. But as Ahsan swung his racquet a little too greedily, a little too eager to finish the match,  the shuttle, instead of landing where it should on the Indian side of the court, inexplicably buried itself into the net. It’s a shot Ahsan, a three-time world champion, can probably pull off in his sleep. Yet, he missed when it really mattered. 

READ: One for the team, from Lakshya Sen

“When Ahsan hit the shuttle in the net I thought ok there might be some luck for us. I thought let’s make the most of it,” Rankireddy would say later. They’d do just that. Guilty through this season of flubbing their lines and 20-18 leads, the Indians reversed the trend. They saved four match points in that second game, and having sowed enough doubt, capitalised on a moment of hesitation from Sanjaya to close out the game on their first game point. Then, despite trailing 13-16 in the decider they fought to win.

At no point, even when they were behind, did the Indians appear discouraged. There was no slumping of shoulders, unlike Ahsan who looked every day of his 34 years with his weary trudges to the backline after each shot. “We just kept our calm and played our strokes. They (Ahsan and Sanjaya) usually invite us to hit it on them because they are very good with their reflexes on body but we just focused on keeping it simple,” Shetty would say later.  

In the closing stages of the match, Sanjaya, normally strong at the net, would retreat almost entirely to a defensive role, with most of the plays being created by the Indians. At match point, Sanjaya, after scrambling to clear the shuttle to the back court, ended up swaying out of the way of a cross court smash that he desperately hoped would fly out of bounds instead of landing inside the singles tramline as it eventually did. It was a point that was emblematic of the match. “The Indonesians were just trying to avoid making mistakes. They just didn’t want to be the villain of the defeat,” Gopichand says.  “Our players on the other hand were looking to be heroes.”

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