The Indian doubles team of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy has been enjoying a decent run of form ever since they left Indian shores for their latest swing of the International circuit in the middle of last month.
Over the last three weeks, the duo have beaten men's doubles teams from China, the Asian Games silver medalists from Indonesia and the Olympic bronze medalists. Having lost a close quarterfinal match to the World Number 2 pair at the Japan Open last week, they flew to Thailand where they've now gone one step further.
On Friday afternoon at Bangkok's Huamark indoor stadium they beat the Korean pair of Choi Sol-Gyu and Seo Seung-jae to make the semifinals of the Thailand Open World Tour Super 500 tournament. They are now in the unusual situation -- for an Indian doubles team that is -- of making the weekend stage of a tournament while the singles challenge has ended.
It's a run that falls in line with the ambition Chirag, 22, had set at the end of last year - where he had hoped the two would make the quarterfinal and semifinal stage regularly this season. It's also a run that would have seemed unlikely just a few months back. Satwiksairaj, 18, was still recovering from a fracture to his sternum. To add to that disarray was the fact that long time doubles national coach Tan Kim Her, under whose charge Satwiksairaj and Chirag had risen from the 400s of the world rankings to 16th, had stepped down from his post. In his place came in Indonesia's Flandy Limpele.
If the two Indians were hoping for the new coach to ease into his role, they were mistaken. "The Indonesian approach is to get as physically strong as possible and our sessions were far more intense than anything we had done. We were doing a lot of training, just a lot of running and hitting. In our first month we were having running sessions two or three times a week," says Chirag. It was something they weren't used to. "Most of our training until then was on the court stuff. Now we were doing 400m sprints or running for 45-minute periods," he adds.
Limpele, a bronze medalist in the men's doubles from the 2004 Olympics wasn't accepting any shortcuts or offering any concessions either. "In the past maybe Satwik would say that he had some pain or the other and the coaches would be a bit lenient because he was such a good player. But this time he had to join me on the track and we both ran so much that we sometimes got cramps and fell on the track," jokes Shetty.
That hard work has paid off. "We aren't worried about playing long matches. It isn't exhausting to play deeper in a tournament. We played for an hour in our quarterfinal match (on Friday) but it didn't feel difficult," says Chirag. The boost in stamina has been particularly helpful for Satwiksairaj, who had to play two events -- the doubles and mixed doubles.
After getting rid of any match rustiness at smaller tournaments in Brazil, Denmark, and Australia, the two played the Indonesian Open - their first World Tour 500-and-higher tournament of the year. While they only won a single match before losing to the World number 1 pair of Kevin Sanjaya and Marcus Gideon, they were satisfied with their game. The close quarterfinal loss in Tokyo to the world number 2 pair of Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda has only motivated them further. Now, having reached the semifinal stage of a World Tour 500-or-higher tournament for only the first time since the French Open last year, the Indians back themselves to go at least one step higher.
"The two of us are happy reaching the semis, but we aren't satisfied. Maybe it was a big deal a year back when we never made this level but now we have reached a stage in our careers where we feel we should reach the finals. That's where we know we have actually improved," says Chirag. It matters not that their opponents are former world champions Ko Sung Hyun and Shin Baek Chol.
"We are a lot more patient now. We have a better understanding of when not to attempt a marginal point and when to go for the kill. The last time we played in the French Open, we came close but we weren't playing as well as we are playing now. We are a lot stronger and a lot more confident this time. I feel that if we are playing at our best, we can beat any other pair in the world," says Chirag.