Out of their comfort zone, Satwik-Chirag start season atop India Open podium

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty in action during the final of the 2022 India Open in New Delhi. BAI

They had broken through and bothered the big pairs. At the Tokyo Olympics, they were the only ones to beat the eventual champions. But for all their troubles, Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy had only one World Tour 500 title to show.

On Sunday, the Indians doubled that count, at home, against their idols Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan. Satwik summed up the feeling as "full joy" while Chirag explained the whys: "We defeated our idols and managed to win the title, but we did it by playing out of our comfort zone. Our past success has been built on our strength, but this was built on defence."

On the eve of their final, Chirag had sounded a touch perturbed by the numbers. Thirty minutes - that's how much time the former world champions, and their next opponents, had needed to reach the final. Their own face-off turned out be 13 minutes longer. The World No 10 pair saved five game points in the nervy closing stages for their first India Open title, winning 21-16, 26-24.

"We knew for a fact that they will try to get an easy point and not go for something that'll make the rally long," Chirag said of the final exchange of points. "We knew that they would either serve and catch the first stroke or maybe do a flat serve. We were ready for that. Even though we were down four or five game points we kept calm and even if the shuttle went low, below the tape we thought it better to just play it than give a point. Strategically, I think it's one of the best matches we've played so far. We played a game which was out of our comfort zone."

Chirag-Satwik denied the Indonesians an initiative by varying pace, lifting, and lying in wait with a stubborn defense, until the chance to launch attacks arose. It's not the kind of game they usually play. "It's quite a new thing for us," said Chirag, "and it's working well. Just goes to show that we can actually get points and even win matches while defending. We definitely played like a top five pair today. I think that is one thing which kind of differentiates a top five and a top 10 pair. Because if things don't work out in one way, then you try to change and the plan."

In 2021, the pair couldn't make a final in 10 tournaments. They pulled out of the World Tour Finals since Satwik was still struggling with his knee. At the World Championships last month, they went out in the pre-quarterfinals. "For the first time, I think I cried a lot," Satwik recalled, "I wanted to do well, I wanted to win a medal. I had a fire in me, I wanted to finish on the podium this time."

It made them do brave things.

Mid-rally in the second game with the score 9-10 in favour of the Indonesians, Satwik sprinted off the court for a racket change. Chirag held down the fort by himself for those couple of seconds, returning a cross-court drop. Satwik was back in time to close the 39-shot rally out with a winner.

A few days back, the Indian pair's participation in the tournament had appeared doubtful as Chirag tested positive before flying in to Delhi. To their relief, he returned negative results in the subsequent examinations. Ordinarily, the pair stick to the routine of having at least one meal together while travelling. It's their way of keeping their off-court bond ticking. This time, as COVID cases mounted in the tournament and players withdrew in a bunch, bonding sessions were a luxury best kept for later. "We were in different rooms. I used to stay in my room, just ordering food, coming back, eating by myself, playing some music and dancing," Chirag said.

For all the time they spent locked away from each other this week, Chirag-Satwik made up for it on court. A title at the start of the year, a selfie on the podium with the pair they grew up watching and the season has only begun to pick up for the Indians.