Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty scripted yet another chapter in Indian badminton history as they secured a first-ever men's doubles medal at the BWF World Championships 2022. And they did so in style, subduing Japan's Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi - defending champions, second seeds, and home favourites.
In keeping with their sustained excellence, this year's Thomas Cup and Commonwealth Games champions earned a 24-22, 15-21, 21-14 win in 75 minutes to reach the semifinals and secure a medal that continues India's streak that began in 2011.
As the scoreline suggests, it was a rollercoaster match with their two games won in a contrasting manner: grit (24-22) and dominance (21-14). The blend of their aggression in play and composure of mind stood as the youngsters neutralised the threat of their fancied opponents at home, playing like they were the favourites.
Satwik even said that he had never seen Chirag so calm and therefore he was able to control some amount of panic too, a pattern we've been seeing more of lately. It's also a significant mental step, back in the city where they had to endure heartbreak at the Tokyo Olympics last year despite beating the eventual champions.
In what was a rollercoaster battle, Satwik-Chirag started the quarterfinal with their intensity dialled in and headed into the first mid-game interval with a big 11-5 lead. Their force of play kept inducing errors from the defending champs and they dictated the rallies for most part. But Hoki-Kobayashi fought back in the second half, winning seven straight points to first level at 14-14 and then took the lead.
The pressure was on the Indians after losing their sizeable lead but they stayed calm as the momentum fluctuated. Down to the wire, both pairs saved game points before the Indians, who converted with Shetty finding an open space in the nervy final moments, seized the game.
Rankireddy and Shetty win ���� an intense first game ��.
- BWF (@bwfmedia) August 26, 2022
The second game was also largely neck-to-neck to begin with, the scores level at 9-9 but this time it was the defending champs who took a two-point lead into the interval. The Indians stayed in the game for the next few points but the Japanese pair's defence was too strong and they pulled away with five straight points to close out the second game.
Chirag admitted the close first game affected them a bit in the second. "I thought we got a bit carried away in the second game today and were just catching up till the end. In the third game, we started off calmly," he said in the mixed zone after the match.
The Indians, seeded seventh, regrouped quickly and upped the aggressive play to force their opponents into making errors early in the third game. They had a massive six-point lead heading to the interval and maintained this lead despite a brief comeback from the home favourites. They closed it out after securing seven match points against the reigning champions - a mark of dominance.
Two moments in the match showed just how mentally strong the duo have been in this draw. First, Satwik stepped out to fetch a new racquet mid-rally but they won the point. Then in the decider, the Indians were penalised for touching the net and argued with the chair umpire, before shaking it off to focus on the match.
Small, regular moments but they signified the confidence the pair have, fitting given how well they have progressed over the last year.
- BWF (@bwfmedia) August 26, 2022
This confidence and composure will be crucial as the next challenge is a familiar, and frustrating one. In the semifinals they take on Malaysia's sixth seeds Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik, a nemesis pair of sorts as the Indians are yet to beat them in five matches over the last five years. The Malaysians beat them in the mixed team final at the Commonwealth Games last month and the Badminton Asia Championships earlier this year. But the duo lost to Ben Lane and Sean Vendy in Birmingham, winning bronze while Satwik-Chirag won gold.
The Indians have already ensured at least a bronze in Tokyo, but two of the hungriest players in India will want nothing less than gold. "We don't want to stop here, want to go further. This is what we were aiming for before the Commonwealth Games, we set our minds to do well at the World Championships too," Satwik said, stating they want 'revenge' against Chia & Soh.
On offer now is a place in the final, a shot at a medal of a colour they have already won twice this year. And we can expect Satwik-Chirag to only level up on that brand of intense calm in the semifinal.