How Satwik-Chirag became the alpha predators of badminton

Hot off their thrilling win of the French Open, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty are in world-beating form

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty have made a habit of it: After puncturing defences, they punctuate title wins with improvised dance moves. The Indian badminton duo, sporting matching bright orange sleeveless tees, carried out the routine at the 2024 French Open, as well after beating Chinese Taipei’s Lee Jhe-Huei and Yang Po-Hsuan 21-11, 21-17 in just 36 minutes on Sunday to clinch their first title of the season. 

“It has been a long time since we danced,” Rankireddy told BWF media of the tradition that had started after India’s historic Thomas Cup triumph in 2022. However, Satwik-Chirag had to pack away their dance moves in the last few months as they lost three finals on the trot: China Masters in November 2023, and Malaysia Open and India Open in January. “It is after our fourth finals. We just wanted to go and have fun and let them earn points and the match. We wanted to give our 100 percent and enjoy. Even (coach Mathias Boe) kept telling us to have fun.”

Exuberance has become a hallmark of their partnership. It rubbed off on the Indian team and lifted them during the memorable week of the 2022 Thomas Cup. Rankireddy and Shetty often look like two boys having a gala time, smiling, picking each other up, indulging in post-match antics. As Shetty, routinely, pulls off his shirt after title wins, raises his arms and lets out a roar in front of the noisiest section in the crowd, you can subtitle in, ‘Are you not entertained’?

But their underdog energy can be deceptive; Satwik-Chirag are alpha predators. Right from the crouched stance at the net, racquets up, waiting to receive serve, to pouncing on high and rising shuttles, their body language and movement has thwarted many a team. They are fast and strong and in your face. The Indian duo is currently ranked No. 1 in the world and they lived up to the billing at the French Open Super 750 event last week. They won five matches, including the semi-final over reigning world champions Kang Min Hyuk and Seo Seung Jae of South Korea, without dropping a game at the Arena Porte de la Chapelle, which will be the venue for the badminton event at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Singles stars P.V. Sindhu and Lakshya Sen also got some valuable match time at the venue during the tournament. Though Sindhu, the two-time Olympic medallist, has gone through a rough patch for the past 15 months or so, she showed glimpses of a comeback in Paris. The 28-year-old, playing her first tour event of the year, was involved in three intense three-game matches, before she went down 24-22, 17-21, 18-21 to China’s Chen Yu Fei. In men’s singles, Sen made it to the semi-finals.

“It is a test venue for Olympics but that is still some months away,” Shetty said. A lot can happen between then and now, but it is a venue that is dear to the Indians’ heart. In 2019, they had announced their arrival on the big stage by reaching the French Open final, their first in a 750 event. Three years later, in 2022, they clinched the title, the biggest in the tour collection then. The French Open has a winning ring to it, especially for Shetty, who is a huge Rafael Nadal fan. “Paris has always been special for us. It’s been like second home for us. I am happy to do well (here), but Olympics is six months away,” he said.

Whether it was the French connection, or the faster conditions working in their favour, everything seemed to fall in place for the Indian duo in Paris. The men’s doubles event is a spectacle to watch. It is played at a dizzying speed; players have milliseconds to react to shuttles coming to them at speeds higher than 200kmph. Satwik-Chirag are masters of the speed game; in fact, 23-year-old Rankireddy also entered the Guiness Book of Records last year for hitting the fastest smash—565 kmph—in controlled conditions. In real-time match play, his overhead shots can be quick and devastating. Since both the players are naturally aggressive, early in the partnership Shetty was shunted forward to shore up the team defence because his net skills were better. But as the team has moved up the pecking order, gone from contenders to world beaters, they have evolved, adding more variety to their attack, tightening the defence and sharpening their tactics. 

At the 2024 India Open, the Indians had suffered a narrow 21-15, 11-21, 18-21 defeat to Kang and Seo. The Korean pair had used a change in pace, played more angles to blunt the edge of the Indians’ vertical shots in that final. But by the time of the Paris re-match, in the clash of the top two teams in the world in the semi-final, Satwik-Chirag had ironed out the flaws. They were smarter in defence and kept up a breathless pace in rallies. In the first game, they won six points on the run, to go from 5-6 to 11-6, and rarely looked back. 

Their opponents in the final, Lee Jhe-Huei and Yang Po-Hsuan, are ranked only No. 16 but came with a reputation for slaying the bigger teams. Like Satwik-Chirag, they are heavy hitters. But the Indians, who were in the groove by the final, never let them settle in the match and play their game. “We didn’t give them too much lift,” said Shetty. Though the shuttlers from Chinese Taipei made a good start in the second game, taking a 4-1 lead, Satwik-Chirag wrestled back control with flatter, more angled shots.

The Paris Olympics remains the biggest prize on offer this year. Winning the French Open is a good start. Next up for the Indian shuttlers—the hallowed All England Open Badminton Championships, which got underway in Birmingham on Tuesday.

Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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