Patience pays off for Satwiksairaj-Chirag on comeback after long layoff

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy (left) and Chirag Shetty. Shi Tang/Getty Images

As they land in Amsterdam on Tuesday evening after a 11-hour transatlantic flight from Brazil, India's premier men's doubles pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy are understandably a bit bleary-eyed. Their journey isn't done yet as they have another flight to Copenhagen where they will be competing in the Denmark Challenge.

It's not their first long-haul flight in recent days though. Just about a week back, the duo made another such journey from Hyderabad to Sao Paulo in Brazil where they were taking part in the Brazil International Challenge. "That was also a really long trip. We first flew to Delhi, where we had an eight-hour wait and then flew to Dubai where we had another eight-hour wait, and from there it was a 16-hour flight to Brazil. It was really very tiring," says Chirag.

However, the two of them aren't complaining. The tournament in Brazil, which they won on Sunday, was their first as a pair in nearly half a year. They had last competed at the the Syed Modi Championships in November last year. The prolonged absence caused their rankings to tumble, down from a career-high 16th in December 2018, to 26th a week ago.

The enforced break came as a result of a freak injury Satwik suffered towards the end of last year. He had been on vacation with his brother in the USA where he took a hard bump to his chest during a day out at a waterpark.

He hadn't thought too much of it and took part in the Premier Badminton League (PBL), a decision that aggravated his injury -- diagnosed as a hairline fracture to his sternum. "The injury was expected to take three weeks to clear up. Then after an MRI, I was advised to take two months of bed rest," says Satwik.

His comeback wouldn't be particularly smooth because the injury didn't heal as quickly as it was expected to. "Playing the PBL made the injury worse. Initially we were hoping to return to competition at the All England and then when that didn't happen, we were supposed to play at the India Open. But because I still hadn't recovered, (national coach) Gopichand sir told me to take another few weeks off," says Satwik.

Even that tentative return date would be postponed. The duo were expected to take part in the New Zealand World Tour 300 tournament last month but had to shelve their plans after a botch-up by the federation in sending their entries for the competition.

"It was a very frustrating period for both of us. We both were really desperate to play because we had done so well the previous year (Out of their last four tournaments of 2018, the two had made the quarterfinals of the Syed Modi, China Open and the semifinals of the French Open. They had also won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast). We had hoped we could begin the new year with that form as well. But there was only training for me and rehab for Satwik," says Chirag.

While his partner was recovering, Shetty paired up with compatriot Pranaav Jerry Chopra. The scratch pair even found some success, winning the Indian nationals and reaching the quarterfinals of the Swiss Open World Tour 300. "I had only played those tournaments with Pranaav because I really needed to stay familiar with the international circuit. Satwik also agreed that I should play in some tournaments," says Chirag.

There was no intention of switching partners though. "It's the Olympic year. I know that our best results come together because our styles work well. I am better at the net while Satwik can remain aggressive at the back of the court. So I was willing to wait for him to get back to court whenever he did," says Chirag.

The two were aware that their return would have to be carefully planned. "If you spend as much time away from the court as I have, it's going to take time to get back to complete match fitness," says Satwik. That return almost got delayed once again as Satwik came down with a viral fever along with a slight niggle in his shoulder just ahead of the competition. This is why his teammate considers it a bit of good fortune that they made their comeback at the relatively easier Brazilian Open where they were the top seeds rather than at the New Zealand Open.

"Everything takes time to get back to normal. You forget how to put the easy points away. Even the serves you do don't come off properly when you start doing it after a long time. In a way it was a good thing we started off with an easier tournament. Match fitness comes after a couple of weeks and I think we are getting back to a good level," says Chirag.

The 4000 ranking points they earned with their win in Brazil would have helped, but there's still work to be done. "I'm right now only about 60 percent of what my best level is. And now we have to start performing," says Satwik. The Olympic qualification period started on April 29th and with countries only permitted to send one pair ranked outside of the top 8, Satwik and Chirag will have to get their world rankings ahead of their compatriots Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy (currently WR24).

Their schedule only gets more hectic from now. After playing in Denmark, they have to fly to Nanjing, China for the Sudirman Cup before preparing for the rest of their calendar year.

"We are still getting used to the jetlag. I'm still getting up really early in the morning because my body has not adjusted to the change in timings. But after sitting in India for so many months, I can say this is a better situation," says Chirag.