BWF French Open 2019: Authoritative Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty show another set of world champions the exit door

Lowering the colours of highly-decorated world champions, past and present, seems to have become a habit with the Indian men’s doubles combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty.

Shirish Nadkarni October 25, 2019 12:34:22 IST
BWF French Open 2019: Authoritative Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty show another set of world champions the exit door
  • Over the past two years, Rankireddy and Shetty have improved by leaps and bounds.

  • Rankireddy and Shetty cross swords on Friday with Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen.

  • Their ability to alter tactics to keep opponents off-balance will serve them well in the future.

Lowering the colours of highly-decorated world champions, past and present, seems to have become a habit with the Indian men’s doubles combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty.

BWF French Open 2019 Authoritative Satwiksairaj RankireddyChirag Shetty show another set of world champions the exit door

File image of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty. Reuters

In Thursday’s second round of the French Open World Tour Super 750 badminton championships in Paris, the youthful Indians convincingly demolished the challenge of reigning world champions, Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan of Indonesia, to add the prized scalps of the Indonesians to those of the 2018 world champions, Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen of China, claimed in the Thailand Open final, two months ago.

Rankireddy and Shetty’s 21-18, 18-21, 21-13 victory at the Stade de Coubertin over the highly experienced three-time (2013, 2015 and 2019) world champions from Indonesia was even more authoritative than the 21-19, 18-21, 21-18 triumph they had claimed over the Chinese aces in Bangkok in the first week of August this year. And tactically and strategically, they were as different as chalk from cheese.

At the Thailand Open, Rankireddy, then just shy of his 19th birthday, was suffering from a sore shoulder that dulled much of the venom of his dreaded smash when he faced two of the most powerful smashers in the world. It was an injury that would force him and his 22-year-old Mumbai-born partner, Shetty, to withdraw from the World Championships in Basel, later that month.

On the night before the Thai Open final, national coach Pullela Gopichand, who did not accompany the players to Bangkok, had a telephonic discussion with Indonesian Dwi Kristiawan, who was performing the duties of courtside coach. Gopichand asked the Indonesian coach to impress on the Indian lads that the Chinese world champions revelled in pace, and also had a strong defence against all the powerfully struck smashes. The plan worked out was to slow Li and Liu down, and not give them much pace to work with.

It did help the Indian cause that the Chinese players were not at their best on the day. Perhaps they were a tad over-confident, and felt that the Indians, with their none-too-impressive record in earlier World Tour competitions, would not pose too many problems. But it is also said that you can only play as well as your opponents allow you to do; and in this particular instance, it was the Indians who dominated on the tactical front.

“Actually, Satwik had been having trouble with his playing shoulder for some time; and it was sore after the semi-final against South Koreans Ko (Sung Hyun) and Shin (Baek Cheol),” explained Gopichand, at the time. “So Dwi advised him not to employ full power on his smashes, but to use the soft smashes, half-smashes and drops more. This softer play ended up working amazingly to his advantage.”

Against the ‘Daddies’ — as the World No 2 combination, 32-year-old Ahsan and 35-year-old Setiawan, are widely known in their home country — there was no injury hassle for the two Indians. Instead of slowing the game down, as they had done against Li and Liu in Bangkok, the World No 11 combo stepped on the accelerator and went hammer-and-tongs at their much older opponents. Shetty was quicksilver in his interceptions, and Rankireddy let loose with everything he had.

There was no doubt that the Indonesians felt their age against the much younger Indians, just as they have frequently done in recent times against their compatriots and World No 1 doubles duo, Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon, known in Indonesia as the ‘Minions’. Ahsan and Setiawan were steady enough to hold their own in the longer rallies, but their rivals kept the rallies short and sharp, as much as they could; and also matched the redoubtable Indonesians in the temperament stakes.

It is pertinent to note that the playing conditions at the vast Stade de Coubertin were slow and heavy (as four-time All-England champion Morten Frost pointed out on commentary), and suited the Indonesians far more than they did the Indians. But Satwik and Chirag were able to tailor their strategy to the needs of the situation, and were able to let their superior speed and youthful reflexes weigh in the balance.

This ability to alter their tactics to keep opponents off-balance will serve the Indians well in the years to come. Over the past two years, Satwik and Chirag have improved by leaps and bounds, and proved that they form the best doubles combination in the country. After yielding the 2017 Indian national title to Manu Attri and Sumeeth Reddy over the extra points in a pulsating deciding third game, the younger pair has shown a clean pair of heels to their fellow-countrymen.

The unexpected doubles triumph ameliorated the Indian badminton supporter’s pain at watching the entire male singles contingent from his country bite the dust in the first two rounds. The Indian women have, however, fared better; and Saina Nehwal, in particular, has been convincing in her straight-games wins over Hong Kong’s Cheung Ngan Yi (at 23-21, 21-17) and Denmark’s Line Hojmark Kjaersfeldt (at 21-10, 21-11).

Eighth-seeded Saina will need to be at her best when she faces teenaged Korean prodigy, An Se Young, in the quarter-finals on Friday. Compatriot PV Sindhu faces an equally stern test when she takes on top-seeded Tai Tzu Ying, whom she had narrowly beaten at the quarter-final stage of the 2019 World Championships, two months ago, but whose performance graph has since shown an upward curve with the capture of the Denmark Open title last Sunday.

As for Satwik and Chirag, they cross swords on Friday with Denmark’s Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen, who were fortunate to edge past Soh Wooi Yik and Aaron Chia of Malaysia at 23-21 in the third game. The Danes had eliminated the eighth-seeded Japanese pair of Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi in their opening outing; and are looking as dangerous as when they were a seeded pair at all World Tour tournaments, earlier in the year.

Friday’s quarter-finals begin at the Stade de Coubertin from 2 pm (5:30 pm, Indian time).

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