If he ever finds himself short of motivation, all Satwiksairaj Rankireddy needs to do is get into his car. Dangling off the rearview mirror is a tiny blue checked figurine of Miraitowa. Rankireddy, who competed in the badminton men's doubles event at the Olympics last year, bought the plastic keychain of the sprightly Tokyo2020 mascot as a souvenir. "It's something that keeps me motivated every day," said Rankireddy.
The Olympics might be a career-defining achievement for most players, but for Rankireddy it's more of a passing milestone. It's one the 21-year-old hopes will hold him in good stead as he prepares for a crucial season that features both the Commonwealth and Asian Games. Although Rankireddy and his partner Chirag Shetty didn't make it to the knockouts, they were the only pair to beat the eventual Olympic champions Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin, in the group stage.
According to Rankireddy, the key to a memorable season for the current World No 10 ranked men's doubles team is to recreate some of the intensity they had in the build up to the Olympics. "The way our mindset was at the Olympics and as we prepared for it was on the mark. We had nearly three months to prepare. We had a coach in Mathias Boe who planned our training and strategy almost completely. Our recovery was the best it had been. For three months our complete priority was the game. If Chirag and I get that rhythm back, I am sure we will regularly finish on the podium," he said.
Their playing style too was reworked to one that Boe felt would lead to more sustained success. "He's been world number one (along with Carsten Mogensen) so has an idea how to maintain that level for so long. He taught us that we can't worry about every single point but rather try and get into a rhythm. Once that happens you can change the match. We learned to make a plan before a match and then play within that plan. Before the Olympics, we made a plan where should we play, where should we target and so we are playing within that plan. It's not like we are reacting to everything in the match. We already know that if I play a certain shot, Chirag will know exactly where the shuttle will come back."
Gone also is a dependence on flashy shot-making. It's been replaced instead with a more straightforward game. "It's more of a Danish style. They aren't stylish like the Indonesians, trying new strokes and looking to catch the lines. This way we want to keep it accurate and on the court. We just want to keep the pressure on opponents rather than go for winners with each shot."
Even simply matching that level of intensity isn't something that Rankireddy will be satisfied with. He took his fair share of selfies with global stars like Novak Djokovic in Tokyo, but there were also quiet conversations and observations with lesser known athletes which inspired him. "There were players who were so far ahead of us in terms of fitness that we couldn't even start to imagine how we could compete. I was doing lunges with twenty kilogram dumbbells and then across the room there were these girls who were doing the same exercise with 40 kilos. When I saw that I thought, what the hell am I even doing?" he recalls.
Rankireddy is now incorporating a lot of changes based on what he's learned. "After playing the Olympics it was a big change. I've learned I need to contribute a lot more to the physical side of the game. I admit, I gave it less importance in the past. Rather than physical training, I enjoyed being on court a lot more. But now I know that's not enough. I think I've become more professional. I used to be someone who loved food, I'd stay awake late. Now I watch what I eat and I'm a lot more careful with my body. If I sense my body isn't reacting well, I know I have to let it rest. I know that I have to come on court an hour and a half early. I have to be a professional like the real champions are."
Of course if the first half of the previous year was one he looks to for inspiration, the second half isn't something he has fond memories of.
As the Badminton World Federation rushed to complete tournaments that had earlier been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, players were forced to shuttle from competition to competition without much rest. "We have just been playing non-stop for the last six months of the year. We didn't have time to train. We were outside and getting fatigued and frustrated because of all the COVID-19 protocols," he said.
Eventually, the physical toll on Rankireddy's body caused him to pick up a niggle in his right knee. This resulted in him having to pull out of the World Tour Finals -- a tournament which he and partner Shetty had considered a career highlight. Although Rankireddy has fully recovered now, he's still cautious. Having played mixed doubles with Ashwini Ponnappa at the French Open last October, he's opting out of that event for the immediate future. "I've stopped right now because I want to fix my body before I push it again. This year we have to play continuously. I'll limit playing mixed doubles to tournaments which are really important," he said.
That of course would be the Commonwealth and Asian Games. He and Chirag have played those tournaments before -- winning a CWG silver in 2018. But that medal came relatively early in their career. "It's a very important year. Last time we were still young and it was a great feeling simply to win a medal. Now we have a lot more experience and we also have a lot more expectations on us," he said.
While he's looking forward to the big tournaments this season, Rankireddy is a little nervous for a couple of reasons as well. Competing in a depleted field, he and Chirag have made the final at the India Open in New Delhi. However, he admitted the duo's preparation hasn't been the best. With no doubles foreign coach assigned to the Indian team, the pair have been following the same program that Boe had left them. "Right now our practice isn't up to the mark compared to the Olympics. The intensity isn't the same. If we message Mathias with any question he will text us but we have no idea if we are playing right or wrong. That's the problem. We are hoping a coach will be appointed soon enough."
The other big reason is the COVID-19 pandemic. A dozen players have had to withdraw from competition in New Delhi after either testing positive for COVID-19 or coming in close contact with someone who had. Chirag had apparently tested positive before the pair left but subsequently tested negative. He suffered from a bout of COVID back in 2020, and he knows the sickness isn't something that can be shrugged off. "When I suffered from COVID, it was a tough time for me. I was out of action for 25-30 days. I put on 10 kg and I had to get back from that. If I catch that sort of COVID again, I'll probably be done for 2022 since the schedule is so packed."
Having made his peace with things not in his control, Rankireddy says he's focusing on the things he can. "I've learned a lot from last year. This year I want to put into practice all that I've understood about my body and my game. I finished last year as an Olympian. When this year ends, I want to be able to say I stood on at least three to four podiums."