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Slower rallies, fewer mistakes: How Satwik-Chirag can stop the world's best team

Chirag Shetty (left) and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy in action against China's Li Jun Hui and Liu Yu Chen during the Thailand Open in 2019. They now have won successive matches against the Chinese pair after losing their first encounter. Chalinee Thirasupa / AFP

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty's straight games 21-19, 21-15 win over China's World No. 3 pair of Li Jun Hui and Liu Yu Chen in the quarterfinals of the China Open in Fuzhou on Friday shouldn't really count as an upset. It's true that the Indians have only recently entered the top 10 (WR9), while the Chinese pair have been in that elite grouping since September 2016 and are the winners of a World Championship gold from 2018 as well. But in recent times, it is Satwik and Chirag who seem to have worked them out. The Indians beat them for the first time to win their maiden World Tour 500 title in Thailand a few months back and have enjoyed a rich vein of form since then. Their latest win gives them a 2-1 head-to-head record against the home side.

The Indians' nonchalant high-five to each other at the end of the game said it all. "There was no point today where we were under pressure. Chirag had a few service faults (he made four errors) but it wasn't something that upset us. We didn't even have to strategise so much. We were better than them defensively. Chirag was better than them at the net. Actually their style of game is almost ideal for us," Satwik said after the game.

Li and Liu have a strong attack but are relatively slow at the net and defensively vulnerable as most lanky players tend to be. Satwik too has a powerful attack at the back of the court but it is Chirag's superior hand speed at the net and the Indian's relatively better defensive skills that made the difference on Friday. "We are much faster than them. We find it easy to move them around the court so we will always get into better positions at the net," says Chirag.

It's going to be nowhere as easy if the Indians want to make their second straight final at a World Tour 750 event. If the Chinese were the perfect opponents for their playing style, the World No. 1 side of Kevin Sukamuljo and Marcus Gideon are the exact opposite. The record would show just that -- 7-0 in favour of the Indonesians, who have been the top-ranked side in the world for the last two years.

The Indonesians are lightning fast and Sukamuljo, in particular, is considered the world's best player at the net by a mile. Where the Chinese pair's shots at the net follow predictable paths that Chirag has learned to anticipate, Kevin is famed for his unorthodox strokes that often leave opponents looking silly. The Indian pair's game is built on fast rallies and flat drives, and that's a veritable hitting session for Sukamuljo. "Usually we play a very fast game. We will hit hard and rush to the net. But Kevin thrives on such a game. It doesn't matter how good you are. He is waiting for you to hit the shuttle hard and he just uses his technique to place it," says Chirag.

In the seven times that the two sides have played each other, the Indians have managed to win just a single game - in the team event at the Asian Games last year. That too, Chirag reckons, was more a case of Sukamuljo and Gideon pressured into making unexpected errors after being caught up in moment of playing in front of a raucous home crowd. Since then, the Indians have tried and failed to come up with a strategy to get their first win on the board.

"Unlike nearly every other team, you can never count them out of a point. For example, if I see Chirag has the shuttle on the net, I am usually confident that we are winning the point. But against them, you never know," says Satwik.

The last time the two sides faced off in the final of the French Open last month, the Indians appeared to try to bypass Sukamuljo at the net itself and hit over him. It was a strategy with almost no margin of error. Unfortunately for the Indians, they seemed to be overawed by the occasion of playing the biggest final of their career, while Gideon had a great day at the back of the court.

While their usual game strategy might have got them to this stage, the Indians will likely have to switch it up with something uncharacteristic. Coach Flandy Lempele has advised them to slow the game down and deny the Indonesians the pace they like to play with. "We like to play fast and finish off rallies quickly. But we will probably not have a lot of success doing that. We have to keep the rallies longer. That means we will have to play really well defensively. If we do that, we might force them into making a few errors and then we have to win those points," says Chirag.

It will have to be a near-perfect game from the Indians. They can't drop easy points like the four service errors Chirag made on Friday. The Indians are hopeful they can turn things around this time. "We just need to stay mentally sharp. They are difficult but not unbeatable. It's about time we get a win against them," says Chirag.