Satwiksairaj, Chirag Shetty and the art of travelling deep

Since they missed so much of the early season this year, Satwik (left) and Chirag are unlikely to qualify for the World Tour Finals. Chalinee Thirasupa / AFP

When he boarded his flight to China last Saturday, to compete at the China Open World Tour 750, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy's check-in luggage would have weighed in a little heavier than it did when he travelled for the same tournament last year. He's simply carrying a lot more T-shirts and shorts these days. The 19-year-old sweats rather profusely and so goes through match kits rather profligately during a competition. This wasn't as much of a trouble in previous years, when he wasn't expected to go very far in a tournament. But that's not the case any more.

Satwik and his men's doubles partner, 22-year-old Chirag Shetty, are regularly making the competition weekend -- a hitherto largely unexplored segment of the tournament for Indian doubles teams. They were in the final of the French Open World Tour 750 a couple of weeks ago. Indeed, a couple of months ago, the "extra kit" policy came into effect after Satwik found himself doing his laundry in the evening before the final of the Thailand Open World Tour 500. He and Chirag would go on to beat the 2018 world champions and win that tournament, becoming the first ever Indian doubles team to win a World Tour 500 -- or Superseries event as they were known until 2017.

That win also took them to a career-high nine in the world rankings. And while inopportune injuries saw them slide a bit over the next couple of months, their result at the French Open -- one that included wins over 2019 world champions Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan -- saw them leap back into the top 10.

Few doubt that they will stay in that elite grouping and possibly rise even higher. Their attacking temperament paired with an alert presence at the net in Chirag and a solid backcourt player in Satwik has proved to be a combination that not only has the ability to pull off wins against the top names in the game but also string together results in big tournaments.

"There are about eight months to go for the Olympics and they are peaking at exactly the right time. Their confidence is very high right now and on their day they can beat any team out there. I think they are good enough to win a medal at the Olympics," says V Diju, who won a silver medal at the 2009 World Super Series Masters Finals with Jwala Gutta and was ranked as high as world No. 6 with her in the mixed doubles event.

A world-class doubles team is a rarity in Indian badminton. While there has been no shortage of talent emerging in the men's and singles disciplines, the same success doesn't carry over to the paired events. That's because doubles badminton is almost an entirely different sport in its own right.

"Unlike other sports like tennis or table tennis, you can't have singles players playing doubles. Skill-wise they are completely different sports. Everything is different. Your grip is different -- you hold the racket flatter and higher on the handle," says Gutta. The nature of gameplay is different as well. "The game -- and especially men's doubles -- is much faster than the singles event. The shuttle comes so quickly at the net that everything is about your reflexes. In the singles event, your stamina is what is tested. In doubles, it is power and speed."

There have been the odd sparks of achievement in recent years -- the standouts being the Gutta-Diju medal and the Gutta-Ashwini Ponnappa bronze at the 2011 World Championships. For the most part though, it has been the singles contingent that has enjoyed sporting success and mainstream popularity. This trapped doubles badminton in a circle of mediocrity. If there were few results to show, the sport rarely attracted the best talent and funding, and that in turn resulted in further lack of success. Indeed, there have been multiple occasions where instead of picking a specialist doubles pair, India has chosen to make a scratch pair featuring singles players like PV Sindhu in major team events.

"The priority for a long time was being given to singles badminton in India. If you see, for the most part players only chose to take up doubles if they haven't had a lot of success as a singles player. The majority of Indian doubles players only really take the sport seriously once they cross 20. Because of this, they rarely have time to gel together and understand each other's game from an early age. This has only been changing in recent times," says former national coach Vimal Kumar.

In this regard, both Chirag and Satwik were the exceptions -- having started out as doubles players. Perhaps it helped that Chirag is the more analytically minded sort of individual -- one who scored 85 per cent in his Class 12 board exams. "Yes, it's true that singles was the more popular discipline, especially if you want to make money in your career. But it was never about money for me. I entered doubles for passion, not to earn money. I've always had an inclination towards doubles," he says.

If Chirag enjoyed the strategy that went with understanding doubles court movements, Satwik simply picked up the sport because that's what he was told to do at the very start of his career. "When my father first met Gopi [Pullela Gopichand] sir, he was told that if I played doubles I would have a good chance to play for India. My father's dream was to see me in an India jersey, so that's why I started to play doubles," says Satwik.

And while their pairing now seems a natural combination, this wasn't always the case. Up until about three years ago, they were rivals rather than teammates. Both had already showed good results with respective partners even at junior international meets. Chirag and MR Arjun winning domestic titles in the U-15 and U-17 categories besides the Badminton Asia U-17 title in 2013. Satwik was happy sharing court and hotel room with statemate G Krishna Prasad. They too won the Badminton Asia U-17 title in 2015 and reached the fourth round of the 2016 World Junior Championships in Bilbao.

It was the performance in Spain that had then foreign coach Tan Kim Her split the old combination and bring Chirag and Satwik together. On the face of it, it wasn't a combination that made a lot of sense.

A men's doubles pair is ideally one of contrasts on the court, explains former national men's doubles champion and current coach Arun Vishnu. "The player at the net has to have excellent reflexes, while the one at the back has to be solid and pick any drive that gets past the midcourt. One player has to be creative at the net and force a lift at the front of the court, so that the other can finish from the back," he says. As it turns out, both the six-foot Satwik and the six-foot, one-inch-tall Chirag were perfectly suited for the back of the court. Ultimately it was Satwik, whose smash even at 16 years old was more than enough to trouble even senior players, who got the rear-court duty.

The doubles pair also needed to be perfectly in sync. This was particularly hard because Chirag, the hotelier's son from Mumbai, and Satwik, the son of a physical-education teacher in small town Amallapuram, were as different as they came. "We did not gel together at the start because I always considered him a rival. I was two years younger to him, so the goal was always -- I have to beat Chirag. It took time to adjust being together as a team," Satwik says.

It was an awkward fit. "We are so different. I usually hang out with the Andhra guys like [Kidambi] Srikanth and Sai [Praneeth]. In the hotel, I love watching Telugu movies and he will look at me and say, 'Kya hai yeh (What is this)?' We didn't even like the same things to eat. I like spicy Indian food and he likes things like sushi," Satwik says of his teammate.

But coach Tan was taken by the attacking mentality both possessed and thought he saw something special in their combination and was insistent they stick together. "At the start when we were struggling, he would always motivate us by saying we will win a medal at the Olympics one day," recalls Satwik.

That might have seemed a far-fetched prospect at the start. They started their partnership with three straight losses in International series events -- the lowest grade of tournament in the BWF calendar. This wasn't to be unexpected though. "The first year is all about taking part. The second is about winning one-off matches. The third is when you start to put the wins together," says Vishnu.

Slowly, the results improved as the pair started finding their feet on the international circuit -- although it took them a year and a half to win their first main-draw match in a Superseries at the Australian Open in June of 2017. As Vishnu says, they started to rack up their first big results in 2018 -- winning a silver medal at the CWG and running world No. 1 Kevin Sukamuljo and Marcus Gideon to three games in the Asian Games, then reaching the semi-finals of the French Open World Tour 750. And while a few months were lost to an injury to Satwik at the start of the 2019 season, the two have only gone from strength to strength.

What finally began to work in their favour was Chirag's increasing confidence at the front of the court. He had started out at a disadvantage. "Most front-court players are not very tall because shorter players tend to have better reflexes," says Gutta. But Chirag has improved here. "Chirag is now the more tactical person on the court. He has become really good at placing the shuttle in such a way that Satwik has got the best chance to finish points off," says Gutta.

Chirag's ability to intercept shuttles at the net isn't so much a case of natural reflexes as of precisely-trained predictive skills, says Gutta. "All good players at the front of the court have to have great anticipation. They need to see the shuttle before it has actually been hit," she says.

This is where the doubles game differs once again from the singles category. "In the singles game, because the game is slower and the open areas on the court larger, you still have time to play your shot. If you cover the court well, that's enough for you. In doubles, there are actually very few areas on the court where the shuttle can go -- and the shuttle is travelling really fast. So it's not just enough to hit the shuttle back. It's also important to think, 'If I hit the shuttle to a certain spot, where's the next shuttle going to return,'" explains Chirag. All doubles players have to think a couple of strokes ahead but it's here that Chirag thinks he's doing well. "I have a lot more experience now. I'm a lot better while anticipating the shuttle now," he says.

All this has come increasingly handy. Chirag explains using the duo's recent match against 2019 world champions Ahsan and Setiawan in the French Open quarterfinals. "Normally when you push the shuttle at an opponent's body, the instinct is to make a hard flat return. If you stay in the same place, you will be hurried into the return. So the moment I pushed at the body, I would take a step back, because I knew that the pace on the shuttle would be harder than usual. That way I had enough time to make the return," says Chirag.

Chirag's ability to finish points early while receiving serve too has been noticed. "A lot of players after making a service return are happy to let the next shot be taken by the backcourt players. Even Satwik will let the next shot go over him. Chirag is always looking to catch that drive. That's just confidence," says Diju.

These skills might have already been put in place by coach Tan, although he wouldn't be part of the duo's best days, choosing instead to make the shift to training the Japanese doubles team. It would be current coach -- Indonesia's Olympic bronze medallist Flandy Lempele -- who put the final bits of the puzzle together.

While stamina isn't considered a major attribute in men's doubles, Lempele, who took over around the time Satwik was recovering from an injury to his sternum at the start of the year, insisted the duo boosted theirs. His reasoning was simple. Satwik and Chirag play a high-tempo attacking style. This was perfect if the match lasted two games. "But what he noticed was that in the third game we aren't as quick as we were in the first two games. So we do a lot of physical cardio training, so that when we are playing the third game we feel, 'Yeh to kuch bhi nahi hai (This is nothing),'" says Satwik.

Lempele brings a calming influence to the coach's chair too. "During the changeovers, coach Lempele doesn't tell us too much about tactics. He'll just remind us of basic things like making sure we have our rackets raised up. He expects us to take care of the rest," says Satwik.

So far it seems to have worked. This year, the pair have beaten five of the teams ranked in the top 10. Yet even as they rise through the ranks, the pair are aware of the challenges that await them. "Every doubles team has certain opponents they do well against and some they struggle with, and that's the same for us," says Satwik.

Opponents they are confident against are those who have a strong defence but modest attacking game like Ahsan and Setiawan or those with powerful attacks but missing a bit of quickness such as the Danish world No. 7 pair of Kim Astrup and Anders Rasmussen. Teams that continue to cause trouble are those with an all-round game who play at a high pace, such as the Indonesian world No. 1s Sukamuljo and Gideon or the Japanese world No. 4 pair of Keigo Sonoda and Takeshi Kamura, who have head-to-head records of 7-0 and 5-0 respectively against the Indian pair.

"We are still not very comfortable playing a game with a lot of very fast drives. That's because we are still not very strong defensively. We can maybe defend for five or six shots but after that it gets really hard for us," says Satwik.

Apart from individual matchups, there's also the concern that any momentum might be broken up by a recurrence of the injuries that kept Satwik out of the first half of the season and which then struck once more after the Thailand Open and forced them to miss the World Championships. "They need to manage their workload, especially going into an Olympic year. They have to take care of their bodies. I think they will get some rest in December and while they have their PBL matches in January, they need to make sure they don't overdo things," says Vimal.

For the moment, Chirag and Satwik believe they have things under control. The fact that they missed so much of the early season means they are unlikely to qualify for the World Tour Finals and will likely end their season with the Hong Kong Open and then the Syed Modi Championships later in November. Before their season ends though, they hope to beat some of the few remaining pairs that have remained a bogey. Key would be a win against Sukamuljo and Gideon, perhaps in China itself. "Every time we play against them, we get a little better. We learn what could work. We know we are going to get a win against them at some point," says Chirag.

Should they get that win in Fuzhou, they would be in a second consecutive final at a World Tour 750 event, travelling deep into the tournament weekend once again. The extra T-shirts Satwik has packed should come in handy.