Satwiksairaj Rankireddy’s badminton season is over for the year. He alongside his men’s doubles partner Chirag Shetty have opted out of the New Zealand Open and the Australian Open competitions that they were originally scheduled to play over the next couple of weeks.
It’s a decision he’s been forced to take due to injuries. He sustained one in 2021 in his knee. He’s nursing a more recent one in his groin, having picked that up a couple of Saturdays ago while competing in the semifinals of the French Open against Choi Sol Gyu and Kim Won Ho.
The Indian pair were dominating that match, when Satwik took off for a jump smash. “Immediately I felt a pop, that something had stretched too much,” he recalls.
Satwik still won that point, and the pair, the match. Despite the injury, Chirag and he would go on to win the final of the BWF 750 event and so pick up their biggest win on the World Tour.
Satwik then made the decision to play another tournament the following week – Germany’s Hylo Open.
“The only reason I played that tournament was because we had played very few tournaments this season. So I was just looking to see how it goes. I didn’t have any real expectations. I didn’t even have any practice sessions before the tournament. Chirag and I had decided that the moment that injury started feeling worse, we’d not push for a result,” he says.
Although the Indians were able to get past a tough Taiwanese pairing of Lu Chen and Olympic champion Lee Yang, they’d lose tamely to Sean Vendy and Ben Lane – an English pair they’d comprehensively beaten in two previous matches including the straight-games thrashing in August’s Commonwealth Games final.
That loss capped off a year though that’s seen far more wins. The Indians finished their season with an overall 36-9 win-loss record – their best in six years together on the international circuit. They won two tournaments on the World Tour-- the India Open and the French Open, a historic Thomas Cup gold, CWG men’s doubles gold and a first ever medal at the World Championships.
“It’s not nice to pick up an injury but overall it has been probably our best ever season,” Satwik says. “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. Now people are doing the same with us. The lower ranked players are a little cautious with us and the top players also know it is 50-50 match every time they play. 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. This year, we have started winning a lot more,” says Satwik.
While they’ve indeed started going all the way a lot more, they have also been consistent. “I think we played 10 tournaments and with the exception of one (the Malaysia Open where they gave a walkover in the second round) we have at least made quarterfinals in all of them,” says Satwik.
That walkover was conceded due to Satwik suffering a pulled muscle in his core during a match. As a result, the pair missed three subsequent competitions in July. They’d also missed four tournaments prior to the Malaysian Open. It’s largely a consequence of those absences that the pair have been unable to qualify for the season ending World Tour finals.
“We only played just 10 tournaments this year. Most of our competitors have played 14 or 15. Actually if we had just played 2-3 more tournaments and even if we had played just the first or second round in those we probably would have qualified (for the World Tour finals),” he says.
But Satwik is willing to see the bright side of that miss. “It’s perhaps good we didn’t qualify,” he says. “When I was playing in the Hylo Open, I was playing at less than 80 percent of where I would be if I was fully fit. I could feel pain when I was jumping really high or stretching really good. If I push myself I can play 85 percent. But that level is only enough if you are playing a small tournament. If you are playing the top players in the world, I know that that is not going to be enough to be competitive,” he says.
That preparation will be particularly important considering Satwik knows he has not had the best of luck with injuries. His latest groin strain is an example of that. “Normally the groin is a very strong part of your body. I didn’t have any indication of a strain before the match. And by the second game when I picked up the strain, I was properly warmed up as well. So to get it at that time is just bad luck,” he says.
It’s not all bad news though. “I’ve been able to speak to a doctor and have been told that it is a minor strain. It came as a result of overwork. Even my knee injury is a result of overwork. Since I’ve been dealing with that for a long time, it isn’t such a problem for me. The groin injury is something I’ve had for the first time so I wanted to be a little careful,” he says.
The fact that the doctors say his injury is due to ‘overwork’ is also a sign perhaps of the fact that Satwik’s on the court a lot more than he used to be. “We have had a lot of success this year. But that has also made it a lot harder. We are playing a lot of matches and back-to-back tournaments. At the Commonwealth Games, we were playing both individual and team events. There’s a lot of expectations on you and there’s more stress on your body as well,” he says.
That’s why in preparation for the next season, Satwik says his plan is to devote more time to off-court training. “Ever since we have been working with (national coach Matthias) Boe, we have been doing really hard training. It’s had an impact in our performance this year. I had a slight injury during the Thomas Cup as well but because of the physical work we had put in before the start of the season, we were able to win there. I will be doing more of that but focus even more on the training off the court,” he says.
“Right now, I’m very confident with how Chirag and I are playing on court during matches. We are playing without too much tension. We aren’t taking pressure during matches. In the quarterfinals of the French Open (against world number 1 Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi), we were leading 20-16 before they levelled. In the past, I would have panicked but this time I was completely in control. I was just enjoying myself. When I’m in that mental zone, we start winning matches and we have been in that mental space a lot more this year,” he says.
“I want to focus more on physical training. I want to go all in on off court. I can handle off court. The off court matters more. If you are strong and fit enough, you can play. And when I am 100 per cent, I’m very confident we will be winning a lot more tournaments,” he says.