Tokyo Olympics 2020: After year ravaged by COVID-19, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty working on Plan B
From Satwik contracting COVID-19 to Chirag Shetty losing his grandfather to the virus, the past year has been a testing time for India's top men's doubles pairing. With a new coach in Mathias Boe guiding them, the pair are looking to make an impact at Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Over the last one year, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty have been through a roller-coaster of emotions. From Rankireddy contracting COVID-19 around the same time the pair was supposed to receive the prestigious Arjuna Award to Shetty losing his grandfather after a fight with the virus, the past 13 months have been one of the most challenging for the young pair. Add to this, the uncertainty that has lingered around the already deferred Tokyo Olympics and anxiety caused by the near farcical regulations in play at BWF tournaments regarding testing protocols.
In the pre-pandemic days, the pair had a nifty rule to keep the joints of their chemistry well-oiled: if the pair was in the same city, for tournaments or training camps, they would ensure they ate at least one meal of the day together.
The rule clearly played its part with the pair belying expectations to win the Thailand Open Super 500 event in 2019 and making it to the final of the French Open Super 750 tournament. They also ascended to the No 10 spot in the men’s doubles world rankings and eighth in the Road to Tokyo rankings.
But with the coronavirus pandemic forcing the BWF to cancel tournaments and with harsh lockdowns being imposed in countries the world over, Shetty went to live with his parents in Mumbai while Rankireddy was staying on his own in Amalapuram (Andhra Pradesh)—possibly the first time since the pair came together in 2017 that they had spent so much time in different cities. Training sessions were held virtually.
“I became like one bodyguard,” he says while talking about the harrowing days of August last year when he had the coronavirus, and the resulting near-month-long isolation left him nearly five kilograms bulkier.
“Initially, it was very tough for me. When I got the virus, I was just in a room for almost a month. I got very disturbed mentally and physically. It changed my body totally,” says the 20-year-old.
Even when he was cleared to return after shrugging off the virus, he spent the next two months doing gym training, with on-court sessions prohibited.
“That stage of my life was very demotivating. I was not practising, I was doing only training for two months. It was a very tough situation for me,” he says.
His partner has had troubles of his own with the virus.
“I was there in Mumbai last week as my grandfather passed away. He too had contracted COVID-19,” says Shetty. “The situation is pretty bad in Mumbai and almost all of our family members have already got the virus. All I can do right now is train and ask them to stay safe.”
Shetty added that while he tracks news about the Olympics on social media, he avoids running web searches for updates about Tokyo 2020 on a daily basis. “I don’t search on a daily basis about the Olympics because it starts playing on your mind and there’s always the uncertainty about the event taking place. It’s better to focus on what you can do,” he adds.
In his post-retirement life, former Danish doubles player Mathias Boe found his calling in starting a Danish podcast about financial investment. But his most exciting punt could be choosing to invest his time in coaching the young Indian doubles pairing of Rankireddy and Shetty.
Boe, a doubles silver medallist at London 2012, was brought on board under the TOP Scheme in January this year. He had already spent some time working with Shetty in Mumbai late last year before his appointment.
The switch will mean a change of style for the explosive attacking pair that is looking for a Plan B as they look to counter the Indonesian pairings of Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo-Marcus Gideon Fernaldi and Mohammad Ahsan-Hendra Setiawan. The Indonesians have proven to be difficult to overcome with a sheer power smashing game.
“We have a very good attack. But to beat all the top players, you cannot just have a Plan A. Everyone has gotten stronger in this lockdown. Everyone at the top level can defend and read our game,” admits Rankireddy.
While both the players realise that six months is too small a window to make drastic changes to their playing style, they’re getting used to the European style of play, which requires a more tactical approach.
“There are a lot of changes which are being implemented by the new coach. We’re trying our hands at a European style game rather than the Asian style. We had many Asian coaches previously. It has been a little difficult for us to change our style of play,” says Rankireddy.
“Six months is not a lot of time to get used to a new coach but both of us are at a level where we can play all kinds of game. We just need some kind of tactical improvement in our game. We can defend, we can attack, but we’re at a level where we just need a few corrections here and there and we can actually beat those top 5 pairs. From the outside people will say that it’s difficult (to adjust so quickly),” adds Shetty.
His partner elaborates that under Boe a lot more thought process goes into training programs. “It is not just about pushing yourself to the limits. Yes, his plan also requires us to push ourselves to the limit but with a lot more thinking,” says Rankireddy, who adds, “Physically, we’re getting tired (in training sessions). Before he came on board, we used to do a lot of physical off-the-court training but now we’ve cut that out. We’re doing mainly on-court sessions, ones which require 100 percent intensity. Those morning sessions are leaving us really tired.”
In their first two tournaments under Boe, the Indian pair reached the semis of the Swiss Open before losing in the second round at the All-England Championships—incidentally, on both occasions, to Boe’s compatriots, Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen.
The pair—which will compete at the India Open next month—is chalking those defeats down to adapting to the new system.
“We may not have played our best. But we played a game that was tactical. It was different style of play for us. We need to have something of a Plan B. If we want to beat a pair like Kevin Sanjaya-Marcus Fernaldi or Mohammad Ahsan-Hendra Setiawan at the Olympics we need a Plan B. This is just the early stages,” says Shetty.
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