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2022 BWF Badminton World Championships: Sat-Chi build a runway paved with bronze

Over the years, they have both worked on their weaknesses—Chirag Shetty has become more powerful in his game, and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy more wristy, better-equipped to handle defensive situations.

August 27, 2022 / 05:38 PM IST
Badminton players Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy never lose their temper with each other—at least not on court—instead, they high-five each other every time one of them makes a mistake. (Image source: Twitter/@sachin_rt)

Badminton players Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy never lose their temper with each other—at least not on court—instead, they high-five each other every time one of them makes a mistake. (Image source: Twitter/@sachin_rt)

Historic or not, in the end, Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy would be disappointed with their semi-final exit at the BWF Badminton World Championships in Tokyo. It would be in their nature to sit in their shared hotel room and reminisce about the missed opportunity, at least for tonight. That’s because Shetty and Rankireddy, in their meteoric, fledgling career, have never met an opposing pair that they did not think they could beat.

Another way of looking at it is that the pair have done something truly pathbreaking—the first Indian men’s doubles pair, and only the second Indian pair after Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa, to win a world championship medal. The bronze was assured as soon as Shetty and Rankireddy silenced the partisan crowd at the Tokyo Metropolitan stadium by beating home favourites and defending champions Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi in a breathtaking match that featured some of the craziest returns you will see on a badminton court—stuff that’s becoming de rigeur for the young pair.

But enjoying that perspective will come later. After the debriefing and tactical analysis. After the sadness of having lost a close match—20-22, 18-21, 16-21—to the Tokyo Olympics bronze medallists from Malaysia, Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik. After the loneliness of the phrase “settled for bronze” has been shrugged off and they are back on the court doing what they do best.

What a year the pair, fondly known as Sat-Chi on the circuit, have had so far! Their promise was more than evident when they were brought together as teenagers in 2016 by then coach Kim Tan Her. They had early success—at 17, the pair reached the finals of the 2018 Commonwealth Games and came away with a silver, the first Indian men to do so, and Rankireddy was a part of the team that won the mixed team gold. But this year, Sat-Chi have been nearly unstoppable. They won the Indian Open, became the first Indian men’s pair to win the Commonwealth Games gold, and stunned the badminton world with their conquests at the Thomas Cup, where they were the single biggest reason for India’s first-ever title victory. Sat-Chi lost only one match in that campaign, to Olympic champion Lee Yang and Wang Chi-Lin of Chinese Taipei.

Sat-Chi are also the first Indian men’s pair to break into the world’s top 10. The rate at which they are going, it may only be a matter of time before they break into the top three. The on-court evidence is strong: they belong there. It’s fascinating how much they complement each other, as if the Yin-Yang cliché was made for them. Shetty is lean, lithe, and agile, with feline reflexes that enable him to defend nearly-impossible shots coming at him. Rankireddy is tall, muscular, and has a fiendish smash. Shetty is vocal, a big personality, a believer in screaming out his emotions. Rankireddy is quiet and inscrutable. Over the years, they have both worked on their weaknesses—Shetty has become more powerful in his game, and Rankireddy more wristy, better-equipped to handle defensive situations. They never lose their temper with each other—at least not on court—instead, they have adopted the practice of high-fiving each other every time one of them makes a mistake. (“Playing doubles is like a good marriage…you have to be kind to each other,” Rankireddy had said in an interview once). When it comes to nerves, they can both be stone-cold.

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During their quarterfinal triumph at the worlds over the Japanese pair, one point stood out as an example of how smoothly their partnership works. Trailing 18-17 in the first game, Rankireddy realized in the middle of the point that his racquet had a loose string and needed to be changed immediately. Shetty, as if sensing this through some kind of ESP, lifted a return high, giving his partner the opportunity to sprint to his bag. Though Rankireddy was behind Shetty on the court, Shetty was aware of his partner’s movements, because as soon as he had lifted the shuttle, Shetty had taken a wide stance in the centre of the court, giving himself an equal chance to reach any corner, something you would do only if you were alone on court. Shetty managed to retrieve the next shot, Rankireddy stepped back in and immediately smashed one, giving the Japanese no choice but to block, setting up Shetty to play a stinging cross court smash for the point. All of this happened in seconds, without any eye contact.

“(Prakash) Padukone sir and Gopi bhaiyya (Pullela Gopichand, Rankireddy’s coach) built the highway for singles,” Rankireddy had told reporters some months back. “Me and Chirag have begun building the road for doubles.”

Not true. They were building a runway. Now they are ready for take-off.
Rudraneil Sengupta is an independent journalist and author of 'Enter the Dangal: Travels Through India's Wrestling Landscape'. Views expressed are personal.
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