"After the 2021 World Championships, I cried a lot, I wanted to win a medal. I was crying literally, I had a fire that I wanted to finish at the podium as much as possible, so that hunger was there."
- Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, January 2022.
Cut to August 2022.
Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty are the first Indian men's doubles pair to win a BWF World Championships medal.
Mission accomplished? Far from it.
Satwik and Chirag are already the first-of-their kind in Indian badminton. The first Indian pair to break into the Top 10 in men's doubles, back in 2019. The first Indian men's doubles pair to win a Commonwealth Games gold. And now another first at the BWF World Championships. The last two in the span of a month.
And yet, a bronze medal finish feels somewhat underwhelming, because that's just how much the two youngsters in their early 20s have raised the standard and expectations with their performances in the last couple of years.
The world No 7 pair lost to world No 6 duo, Malaysia's Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik, 22-20, 18-21, 16-21 in the semifinals, a day after stunning second seeds and defending champions, Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi of Japan, to secure the historic medal.
Despite the contrasting results on the last two days, the Indians have ensured a podium finish, which was one of the goals for them heading into the season, after missing out in December last year. This in itself is an accomplishment to celebrate. While they were composed against the home favourites in the quarters, some nerves could be seen in the semis. This is a reminder of how they are still young and a work in progress.
The semi-final was a close contest, with the Indians taking the lead but losing some rhythm towards the end with unforced errors, miscommunication and even unlucky breaks with the net and strings.
"I feel we could've been a bit calmer. Of course, you can say a lot of things - we could've done this and that, but getting that balance is obviously what every top player wants. Sometimes, when you are extremely calm you can get complacent as well, so you need to find a balance," Chirag said after the match.
"We controlled ourselves in the first game and maybe could've done that in the second game as well. They are quite experienced in those first four strokes. We could've been calmer, I feel we were a little bit lazy and nervous in those first four strokes. But yes, kudos to them," Satwik added.
- BWF (@bwfmedia) August 27, 2022
In January, when Satwik had candidly admitted how not having the silverware to show for their strong showing had affected him, he could not have guessed how far that fire fuelled by it would take them.
In January, the duo beat Indonesian legends Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan (the Daddies) to win the India Open Super 500 at home. In May, they won all but one doubles tie - which was instrumental in India's first ever Thomas Cup (world team championship) win. In August, they won silver (team) and gold (doubles) at the CWG and capped it with a World Championship medal, both firsts. A long way from August 2021, when they endured heartbreak at the Olympics, bowing out in the group stages despite getting the required win, including one over the eventual champions.
At the same time, they have fallen just short of semifinals several times on the BWF Tour, such as the All England, Korea Open, and the Badminton Asia Championship where they lost to Chia and Soh again, adding to the lopsided 6-0 head-to-head. (They did miss a chunk of the season after Thomas Cup due to injury.)
Steady improvement and still room for more are the two sides of being an elite athlete, and to their credit they have done both. A look at the evolution of their performance shows it, how they've worked on bolstering their speedy attack with dependable defence, how they're staying calm and focussed in tense situations, how they're learning to problem solve as they play.
It's easy to forget in times like this, but this is still the early part of their career. Yes, a World Championship final, even gold, may seem like a missed chance or a bronze underwhelming after their heroics in the Thomas Cup and CWG. But, the fact remains that they've taken yet another step up in the grand scheme of things.
"We made a lot of errors and mistakes, but we'll cut them down and it's a good learning for us. We can see the progress, we are not going down so that's a good sign for us. Body-wise, we are feeling good and are on the right track. So looking forward," Satwik said, summarising their campaign.
At 22 and 25 years of age, the two are already the best Indian men's doubles pair. With their own fiery passion to excel, the aura they have already created with their ruthless style of play and the presence of Mathias Boe, back at the helm to coach them, it is fair to expect big things from the pair. This is still only the beginning.