Chirag Shetty had envisioned upward career trajectories twice in a span of just eight months.
He learned an invaluable lesson the first time he visualised it, while in the second instance, the youngster etched his name in the history books.
After becoming the first Indian men’s doubles combination to win a Commonwealth Games silver medal and reaching the semi-finals of the Indonesia Masters Super 500, French Open Super 750 tournaments late in 2018, Shetty, along with partner Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, believed that the first half of 2019 will set the tone for a splendid pre-Olympic year. That was the very first occasion where Shetty acknowledged his growth.
But just when their on-court partnership was flourishing, Shetty's plans for the pre-Olympic year were quashed by an unexpected incident.
It indeed took a dramatic turn when Rankireddy suffered a sternum fracture during a holiday in the USA which kept him away for almost five months — which is considered a long time in sports. The hiatus affected their rankings and the inaction meant that Shetty had to continue with a temporary partner in Pranaav Jerry Chopra — something the youngster didn't see coming.
"It was nearly a five-month gap. Things became more and more difficult for our partnership. I had to continue playing with Jerry bhaiya (brother) for a couple of tournaments," says Shetty.
After skipping the India Open in March and the New Zealand Open in April due to lack of match practice, Shetty and Rankireddy reappeared on the court in the first week of May at the Brazil International — winning the event quite comfortably. They reached the semi-finals of the Denmark Challenger next, were tested at the Sudirman Cup, made it to the pre-quarters of the Australian Open 300, Indonesia 1000 and appeared in the quarter-finals of the Japan Open 750.
Unperturbed by the mixed results on the circuit, Shetty instead was feeling confident about his career trajectory again, thanks to the steady progress of the duo.
The CWG gold medallists gradually mustered enough courage to outperform opponents at will after testing their partnership in Sydney, Jakarta, and Tokyo. Despite early exits in May and June, Shetty prioritised his co-ordination and link-up with his fit-again partner after the break. "For us, it was just getting on the court and winning again. Luckily, we started playing around the Olympic period started and won our first tournament, which gave us a huge boost," the 22-year-old Mumbai lad.
On Sunday, Shetty’s months of envisaging bore fruit as the dynamic duo closed out matches on the fast courts of the circuit's speediest tournaments to script history with a gold medal at the Thailand Open Super 500 event in Bangkok, thus becoming the first Indian doubles combo to bag a Superseries-level silverware.
— BWF (@bwfmedia) August 4, 2019
En route the final, four of the five matches needed a decider, including the final against world champions Li Jun Hui and Liu Yu Chen. The pair weathered the storm with sheer composure and explosive badminton in the deciding games, even against the flashy higher-ranked Indonesians Fajar Alfian-Muhammad Rian Ardianto and the speedy Koreans in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively.
"We've been explosive, that's our natural game. The maturity came with experience. Since we started watching experienced players like Mathias Boe-Carsten Mogensen and Mohammad Ahsan-Hendra Setiawan, you see their game and they are a lot calmer around the 16-16 stage. That's where you need to be calm. You don't have a 100 percent chance of winning the game but the match is still in your favour if you're calm rather than committing a mistake," he says.
Interestingly, Shetty has been a huge admirer of fellow net players Danish Boe and Ahsan's wizardry at the frontcourt. This has been the case ever since Shetty was employed at the net by former doubles specialist Tan Kim Her.
"Mathias (Boe) has helped me a lot. When he came to Mumbai in 2013, he was the No 2 in rankings and I was a nobody. Like a junior level player. Even then, he took out time from his schedule to train with me. Earlier, I learned stroke-selection but now, I have grasped the calmness he exhibits on the court. That's what helped us in the tournament," explains Shetty before adding, "Even though both Mathias and Ahsan are extremely old school with an attacking approach, they have a superior net game. Their service-and-return has been top-notch, that's what we're trying to bring to our game."
While Rankireddy underwent rehabilitation, Shetty and other coaches made a conscious choice of not rushing back to play tournaments. There were multiple endurance training sessions that helped in adapting to the training methods of the freshly-hired Indonesian coaches — Flandy Limpele, 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.
Under the guidance of Malaysian coach Tan, the duo blossomed over the years, but with other doubles specialist Limpele — a bronze medallist at the 2004 Athens Olympics — the methods are slightly more efficient.
“Playing under him is a lot more different. We focus a lot on our physical aspects like running, multi-shuttle drills and more of on-court skills. Since we do a lot of multi-shuttle drills, I tend to smash from the backcourt. So, my backcourt game has improved. It wasn't a conscious decision, but since Flandy coach asks me to smash more, my backcourt game has improved,” Shetty reasons.
Despite putting up a good show at major events, it was clear that the duo struggled to finish off matches against the top pairs in world badminton despite running them close. Limpele’s methods ensured that Shetty and Rankireddy never run out of gas during crucial stages.
Cut to Bangkok, in fact, Shetty and Rankireddy left opponents panting on the court. As he admits, “Our matches have been close, but we weren’t physically tired. I think the training we had before entering the three World Tour tournaments played a great part in our winning run.”
One step closer
Winning the Thailand Open Super 500 is a small step for Shetty and Rankiredyy, but it was a big one for doubles badminton in the country.
Remember the state Indian singles was in before Saina Nehwal won her first Superseries title in Indonesia in 2009? This can have a similar effect. Mind you, after her, it was PV Sindhu and the likes of Kidami Srikanth, HS Prannoy and Sameer Verma, who claimed titles on the world stage.
Their win could immensely boost the image of doubles badminton, which is often a victim of the step-motherly treatment. “Hopefully, the image of doubles badminton improves. People would question why doubles should get importance when they're not even performing well. But with this title, the step-motherly treatment towards doubles players will change. More and more sponsors will support. The number of sponsors we get is not enough when you compare it with singles players,” says Shetty.
With the World Championships around the corner, Shetty and Rankireddy have moved on from the one-dimensional approach of the usual frontcourt-backcourt routine to swift rotational gameplay. The current men's doubles circuit is full of flashy, wristy and energetic duos, and with a major title under his belt, a confident Shetty envisions a fresh leap of faith.
Will it be a record-making feat or another essential lesson in his young career?
Updated Date: Aug 06, 2019 17:10:24 IST