Sat-Chi: Fire, ice and everything nice for Indian badminton

Photo by Shi Tang/Getty Images

"When Federer and Nadal play together it will be like that only."

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy laughs as he says he is like Roger Federer and Chirag Shetty is like Rafael Nadal when they play together. How so? He is cool on the court while his partner wears his aggressive heart on his sleeve.

This ice-and-fire combination of Satwik and Chirag - Sat-Chi as their popular portmanteau name goes - has had a sensational year in 2022, full of firsts in Indian badminton.

While the Federer-Nadal comparison may be in jest, it wouldn't be wrong to say that at 25 (Chirag) and 22 (Satwik), they are already the most successful men's doubles players in India. And what's remarkable is that this success is just the beginning.

Biggest win of career is just the next step in Satwik-Chirag's steady climb to the top

"2022 has hands down been the most successful year for both of us. Starting with the India Open, Thomas Cup, Commonwealth Games, the World Championship and finally the French Open," Chirag recounts to ESPN.

"Now, ending the year at world No 5, I keep thinking about how far we have come. When we started, it wasn't really good for me and Chirag. From there to world No 5 has been such a long journey [but] there is still a long way to go..." Satwik adds.

"This year we really wanted to medal at the major events and win titles, which we did. Barring the All England we medalled at all big events," says Chirag.

Let's rewind a little bit. Their desire for medals was intensified by the heartbreak of 2021 - where they beat the eventual Tokyo Olympic champions but were knocked out despite having the wins on the technicality of a three-way tie. They also missed out at the Worlds in December and in January and were very candid about how the lack of silverware rankled.

Then, things changed.

January - Beating the legendary Daddies to win India Open Super 500 at home

"After the Olympics, we weren't improving, we were sort of stagnant. We even had a really good chance at the World Championship but we couldn't capitalise on it. We wanted to change things, and starting with the India Open, where we went on to win the title helped. Then a few months later we had Mathias Boe coming back so that really changed things completely."

A big catalyst for Sat-Chi's evolution into a consistent, composed duo on court in 2022 has been the presence of Danish coach Mathias Boe. The former world No 1 in doubles had trained them ahead of the Tokyo Olympics but his contract didn't continue. That's when the GoSports Foundation stepped in.

"We were able to get him due to GoSports- Foundation as his contract with BAI [Badminton Association of India] and SAI [Sports Authority of India] was taking time. But we wanted to get him as early as possible. So before he officially joined, we were able to train with him for two weeks ahead of the Asia Badminton Championship and followed it up till Thomas Cup," says Chirag.

And we all remember what happened at Thomas Cup, right?

May - India's historic first Thomas Cup win

Boe's composure is a crucial factor in their victories, given the players' opposing personalities. Chirag recounted a particular incident during the CWG final when he curbed his natural instinct to respond in kind after being instigated and instead let his racquet do the talking.

Satwik, on the other hand, is the chill one and he knows it. "My game is a little calm, I control myself inside but Chirag is more aggressive. When Mathias [a former world No 1 in doubles] used to play, they were very calm, like before the storm...it comes with experience, we know what to do when the situation gets heated up, we have a man behind telling us what to do and we have a plan before the match."

August - Commonwealth Games gold, World Championship bronze

Developing this mentality is something Satwik, Chirag and Boe are working on. "We want to be calm, play like a mature pair and not get hurried. The CWG final, for example, was a pressure match because we were playing English players in England in a packed hall and before us, Sindhu and Lakshya had won gold. We were a little tensed and told ourselves to stay calm and handle ourselves and we went on to win easily. You get good ideas when you are under pressure and don't take too much time to think," says Satwik.

The historic Thomas Cup win, a recurring character in Indian men's badminton's success story now, also helped. "The Thomas Cup final definitely helped, we have never played in a more intense or pressure match. After that Thomas Cup final, I don't think anything feels like a pressure situation," Satwik adds.

Such has been the increase in confidence that the next time they found themselves in the final, they were quite the veterans.

October - French Open Super 750

"Winning becomes easier when we don't think much about the situation. Then again in the French Open final, we knew what to do, they were under pressure because it was their [Chinese Taipei duo of Lu Ching Yao and Yang Po Han] first time in this stage and we had already played a lot of tournaments," Satwik says.

But Chirag's fiery attitude is a weapon they are happy to wield when the time comes.

"We don't want to get nervous [but] we want to show aggression when we are a bit down or under pressure. Then Chirag will take over that stage, he gets into that zone, he does his job, my thing is to be calm and enjoy that moment," Satwik smiles.

This balance of aggression and composure will be a much-needed quality in the coming year, which is a loaded season with the delayed Asian Games and Olympic qualification. They are already working on their one weakness - defensive play.

But Satwik has another agenda for 2023, in which he might have to borrow an attribute from Chirag. "We want to beat two very close friends of ours, to whom we have lost every time. [The Malaysian pair Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik (7-0) and the Indonesian pair Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo (11-0)] We are very close but they even come into my dreams sometimes," he says with a laugh.

On a serious note, he adds, "Mainly we want to manage our workload thinking of the Olympics, not get injured or get out of rhythm. Like in 2022, play fewer tournaments but more quality. This year we only played 10 tournaments and we reached quarters and semis in almost all of them. We want to do the same in 2023. So we are focussing on our bodies, doing well in big events and getting ready for the Olympics."

Last December, they were reduced to tears and frustration as the season ended without significant silverware to show for their strong efforts. This December, they are the world's No 5 team and a genuine threat against the best. The year 2022 has been a game-changer for Indian badminton and Sat-Chi has led this change with its evolution.

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty are ESPN India's male Athletes of the Year (2022).