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Satwiksairaj-Chirag achieve year's goal (again) but are just getting started

YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images

At the start of the year, Chirag Shetty had been rather modest about what his -- along with doubles partner Satwiksairaj Rankireddy's -- goals were for the season. Having become the first Indian pair to make the quarterfinal stage of a Superseries event in 2017, Shetty said his target had been simply to make semifinals in a World Tour event -- the Badminton World Federation's replacement for the Superseries.

It's fair to say, the duo have progressed faster than even they might have expected. When they beat compatriots Manu Atri and Sumeeth Reddy in the French Open in Paris on Friday night, they had made their second World Tour semifinals, having reached the same stage at the Indonesia Masters in January this year. This, of course, is in addition to their silver medal at the Commonwealth Games, the first ever by an Indian men's doubles team.

The duo, currently ranked 25th in the world, though are far from satisfied. "At the start of the year, our goal was to make a semifinal and hopefully make a final next year. We have already made two semifinals this year which was a little unexpected. We are, though, not satisfied with what we have achieved. If we are satisfied we will remain a pair that is ranked 20 in the world. We think that we should belong in the top 5," says Shetty.

They don't buy the reasoning that their relative youth -- Shetty is 21 while Rankireddy turned 18 just a couple of months ago -- should count for something. "We can't say that we are young so we should be satisfied with where we have reached. We are doing well but only compared to the Indian standard. Compared to the world we haven't really achieved all that much. So we can't make the excuse of our age. There have been players who have won world titles when they were 18 years old," says Shetty.

The pair acknowledges they are a work in progress, though, because while they may have exceeded their targets for the year, they have also suffered plenty of heartbreak this season. For instance, immediately following the historic silver at the Commonwealth Games, they endured a torrid run of three consecutive first-round exits at the Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand Opens.

"That was a really rough patch. At that time, we were really worried. We wanted to drop out of the Singapore tournament because we felt we needed to get some more practice too," recalls Shetty.

It was national doubles coach Tan Kim Her who counseled the two to persist. "He said that he was expecting us to hit a rough patch and that this was an experience that we needed to overcome. So we went to Singapore where we won the first round but lost in the second," says Shetty.

While the two got the turnaround to the season they needed at the World Championships, where they beat Olympic bronze medallists Marcus Ellis and Chris Landridge, Shetty feels the run of early exits - the duo have a total of five first-round losses this season -- is a problem that needs to be fixed. "We have reached a couple of semifinals but we need to be more consistent. In the doubles it isn't just about playing with power but playing with intelligence. We need to be a little more consistent in getting out of the first couple of rounds. Those first couple of rounds are all about experience and practice. Right now we don't have that much experience but we are getting that with every tournament," says Shetty.

For the moment, though, the two are focused on reaching their 2019 goal - a World Tour Final appearance - on Saturday itself. And standing in their path just as they did at the Indonesia Masters is the world number 1 pair of Kevin Sanjaya and Gideon Marcus. The Indonesian pair, who have won 6 World Tour titles and have amassed a 49-5 record for the season, are a formidable obstacle.

At the Indonesia Masters, the Indians were swatted aside 21-14, 21-11. This time, though, Shetty is expecting a closer battle. His confidence comes from the last match the two pairs played, in the quarterfinals of the men's team event at the Asian Games. Although the Indonesians had won yet again to improve their record against the Indians to 5-0, the 21-19, 19-21, 16-21 scoreline had been far closer than expected.

"We really should have beaten them. We won the first set and then we had a 11-6 lead in the second. Then we were leading 18-17 when Satwik hit a really good smash and all I had to do was tap a winner. But just at that moment, I got distracted by someone who was wearing a white shirt and I completely missed the shuttle. I didn't even touch it. And after that the match turned," says Shetty.

But the match serves as a reminder of how close they were to beating the best in the world and how narrow the margins had been. "That match gave us the belief that we were so close to beating them. In that game we noticed that Kevin (Sanjaya) was coming under pressure for the first time. He's usually a very flamboyant player who hits any kind of stroke he wants but this time he was taking the time to think what he wanted to do," says Shetty.

He thinks they will have to play a similar way on Saturday. "The first quarter of the match will be decisive. If we let Kevin get going, he won't be easy to stop. But if we put him under pressure, it can get to him. It will be tough but if we have to be among the best in the world we have to start winning these matches," says Shetty.