Finally, finally, after years of agonising about the absence of doubles talent, India was able to exult in its first elite men’s doubles title of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) international World Tour circuit.
Unseeded Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, who have now been playing together for four years, bagged the first major title of their career by notching a tactically brilliant 21-19, 18-21, 21-18 triumph over reigning world, Asian Games and World Tour finals champions, Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen of China, in the Thailand Open Super 500 badminton championships in Bangkok on Sunday.
Andhra Pradesh (Amalapuram in East Godavari district) born Rankireddy, who will celebrate his 19th birthday in nine days’ time, on 13 August, and his 22-year-old Mumbai-born partner, could even have wrapped up the title in straight games, but blew a useful 18-16 lead in the second game, to concede the final five points in a reel, and be dragged to a decider.
To their everlasting credit, the Indian duo did not let the reverse drag down their morale or concentration against the redoubtable No 3 seeds, and broke away from 6-all in the final game to race to the crown in two minutes over the hour mark. In a match marked essentially by short, sharp rallies, they kept the Chinese pair on a tight leash with soft strokes intermingled with clever angles, rather than raw power; and did not allow them the pace that Li and Liu like to work with.
Before this title, Rankireddy and Shetty’s best result had been the gold medal in the Hyderabad Open in 2018. But that was merely a Super 100 tournament, with virtually no participation from among the top ten pairs in the world. The Indians were also runners-up in the 2018 Syed Modi International, a Super 300 level championship, in which they were beaten in the final in straight games by Indonesians Fajar Alfian and Muhammad Rian Ardianto.
Thus, what made the Indians’ Thailand Open win all the more satisfying was the fact that they took the title from a glittering field that featured every one of the world’s top four doubles combinations, viz. Indonesia’s Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo (ranked No 1), Japan’s Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda (no 2), Li and Liu (No 3), plus Indonesia’s Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan (No 4).
“This is the confidence-booster that the boys badly needed, after coming close to victory in several matches in the past year, but being unable to close them out,” said national coach Pullela Gopichand, at whose Hyderabad-based Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA) the two youngsters have been practising ever since they were paired together when Rankireddy was a callow youth of some 14 summers.
“Both the boys are big, tall and strong; and are as fit and fast as any of the top pairs on the world circuit. They have all the good attributes of doubles play that one could ask for. All they needed was honing of their tactical acumen; and that has been done with the help of Malaysian and Indonesian coaches that we have brought in over the course of the past few years.”
Indeed, Rankireddy and Shetty have flowered over the past year under the guidance of Malaysian doubles expert Tan Kim Her; and more recently, after being taken under the wing by Indonesia’s Flandy Limpele, a fine doubles player in his time, who never really attained his full potential, but was still a bronze medallist at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Limpele has been assisted at the PGBA by his compatriots Namrih Suroto and Dwi Kristiawan, with the latter officiating at courtside at the Huamark Indoor Stadium in Bangkok.
“I think the boys played their best match in the semi-finals, against (South Korea’s) Ko Sung Hyun and Shin Baek Cheol, whose style they love, and whom they have idolised for a long time,” said Gopichand. “Chirag was simply outstanding with his interceptions and correct positioning on the court, and was mainly responsible for the boys running away with the decider against the Koreans.”
On the night before the final, the national coach had a discussion with Kristiawan, who was performing the duties of courtside coach, and asked him 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 has been having trouble with his playing shoulder for some time; and it was sore after the semi-final against the Koreans,” explained Gopichand. “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.”
There were few of the type of rallies that normally dominate a men’s doubles match – say, a series of smashes, followed by a series of defensive lifts across court, until the opportunity to regain the attack arrives. Rankireddy and Shetty kept the rallies short and sharp, with the latter using his razor-sharp reflexes at the net to direct the shuttle to different angles on the opposite side.
Some of the defensive shots that Shetty played were mind-blowing, and revealed the kind of work that has been done by Limpele & Co behind the scenes over the past four months that the Indonesian team has been with the Academy.
The lanky 22-year-old would go down on fully bent knees, virtually on the ground, and parry back a series of smashes aimed at his body, and eventually manage to redirect the shuttle to a point at the net across the court. The Chinese just did not know what to do with Shetty, who played so many unconventional shots that one lost count! If anything, Li and Liu got more joy when they aimed their smashes at Rankireddy, whose defence was not as tight as that of his older partner.
This Thailand Open win, which netted the Indians a cheque of $27,650, will have, in all likelihood, propelled them into the top ten in the world when the BWF rankings are next released on 8 August. It will also mean that the pairs above them will now be viewing videos of their recent matches, and working out ways and means of neutralising the tactics that they employed at the Huamark Indoor Stadium on Sunday.
There is also strong reason to consider reserving Rankireddy for just men’s doubles, and relieving him of his mixed doubles duties with Ashwini Ponnappa. Playing two matches a day over five days in men’s and mixed doubles is bound to be exceedingly taxing, and could leave the Andhra teenager burnt out before his time.
One could see the stress of playing in both men’s and mixed doubles telling on the mental powers of Japan’s left-handed Yuta Watanabe, who was the culprit behind his and Arisa Higashino’s loss in the mixed doubles final to the Chinese World no 2 pairing of Wang Yilyu and Huang Dongping. Watanabe it was who made crucial errors in the extra points of both games in the final, in which his female partner was the outstanding player on the court.
There can be little doubt that Gopichand is wrestling with the problem of cutting down on Rankireddy’s workload, for a question in that direction drew a firm, “No comment! I do not want to say anything on the subject at this stage.”
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Updated Date: Aug 04, 2019 22:30:25 IST