Indian badminton, for a long time, has been dotted with a handful of notable players and their magnificent achievements. The eras were disparate. Their contemporaries have played the second fiddle to their accomplishments.
Since the emergence and full bloom of Prakash Padukone, the former world number one, Indian badminton has been spearheaded by a single man or woman in an overwhelmingly individual sport.
After the pioneering presence of Padukone in the late 20th century, the beginning of this millennium has been heralded by two iconic women, Saina Nehwal, who fashioned the great fall of China with her hard-hitting attacking style of play, and PV Sindhu, the world champion, who reached a dizzy height with her mighty smashes and longer reaches.
From the early days, when India had not yet become a powerhouse, to the modern day of the game, when India has become a force to reckon with, one thing has remained unchanged about India – the pedagogy of finding champion shuttlers in singles events.
Doubles have never been India’s forte. We did have moments of sporadic euphoria, courtesy of Jwala Gutta and her partnerships with Shruti Kurien first and then Ashwini Ponnappa.
But the domination of singles that India craved for in doubles was scant. Not having quality doubles pairings meant India fared poorly in team events such as the Asian Games, the Sudirman Cup, and the Thomas Cup.
That India did not have a world-beating doubles pair has been attributed to several factors, sometimes to physical attributions of the Indian players (low on stamina and agility), and often to the Indian psyche, which commemorates individual triumphs even in team games.
The coaches were also accused of not encouraging players to opt for doubles. The popular belief was that training an individual was easier than tuning two players of different styles into world beaters. The players, too, were reluctant to share the fame with their peers.
To begin with, the Indian system had faltered in producing dedicated doubles players. In team events, India relied on impromptu pairings. Building coordination between two players to develop pulsing actions, an essential trait in a rapidly moving discipline, was a missing piece at the heart of the game.
Architects of the Doubles Revolution
But nothing is permanent. Things tend to change, and sometimes change happens unexpectedly, leaving us in awe.
The Thomas Cup victory in 2022 was a true testament to Indian badminton’s holistic growth. While singles players, India’s strength, led the team with distinction, the feat was impossible to achieve without the astounding consistency of the men’s doubles duo of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty.
They pulled off two incredible victories in the semifinal and final against Kim Astrup and Mathias Christiansen of Denmark and Mohammad Ahsan and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo of Indonesia to pave the way for India’s incredible maiden feat.
Ever since they emerged from the stable of Pullela Gopichand’s Hyderabad academy, Satwik and Chirag, the revolutionary men’s doubles pair, shattered all the misconceptions about Indian shuttlers, who for years were accused of lacking comprehension of doubles, and emerged as a beckon of hopes.
After having a remarkable season in 2022, with their first-ever men’s doubles title at the India Open, Commonwealth Games, and French Open, and a bronze medal at the World Championships, Satwik and Chirag demonstrated that they are not one off-season phenomenon.
In a discipline, where the game is extremely fast and rallies are exhaustedly longer, Satwik and Chirag have successfully achieved the goals that they aspired to carry off this season.
“It was a fantastic year for us, whatever we wanted to do, we achieved those goals,” Satwik would say after ending the season in Shenzhen, China, on November 26.
As the season progressed this year, they appeared as faster and improved players, revolving on a minute-size court for points with precision. With a variety of strokes in their armoury, they were ready to survive the rigour of the World Tour.
As a pair, they were intimidating. In a sport where being slow is deemed blasphemous, Satwik and Chirag dominated the rallies, overpowering, outpacing, and sometimes outthinking their opponents with their evolving game style.
While they have been a powerful pair who has the mightiest smashes in badminton, they also ameliorated their net play. Chirag showed their improved calibre by stealing points from the net cord, leaving his opponents stunned at the China Masters.
The biggest hurdle in badminton is breaking the Asian monopoly. Satwik and Chirag did that twice in two successive years. Their Badminton Asia Championships title – India’s first in the continental showpiece’s 58-year history – in 2022 and Asian Games gold in Hangzhou this year were a testament to their ability to retain consistency in the knockouts.
Men of many firsts
Satwik-Chirag, the men of many firsts, are now India’s only real ray of hope. They have incorporated that trust with their winning mentality and fighting spirit. They backed it up with excruciating hard work.
As they play, no other Indian shuttler carries the weight of expectation as Satwik and Chirag do. The confidence they muster is real; there is not even an iota of doubt in that.
As a pair, they also dare to pull off surprises even when they are on the brink of being doomed.
In a true testament to their fighting spirit, they trailed 13-20 in the China Masters final in November. In such a situation, Indian fans even at a World Cup final of cricket would have left the stadium vacant, but that was not the case at the Shenzhen Bay Gymnasium.
Satwik and Chirag pulled off a coup by saving six match points in a row, sucking out the energy of world no. 1 Chinese pair of Liang Wei Keng and Wang Chang.
The raging Chinese fans were stunned, and their raucous chant soon transitioned into a murmur before Liang and Wang – the better pair of the day – somehow clinched the winner in a 40-shot rally and survived a scare. The Chinese recovered from an impending heartache as Satwik wore a smile on his face and Chirag fell on his back sapped. There is no pain in such a defeat.
It was a rare loss for Satwik and Chirag in an event finale. They rarely lose after reaching the quarterfinal. Before their loss in the China Masters final, they were unbeaten in eight finals since October 2019.
Satwik and Chirag showed remarkable consistency and firepower throughout the season. In the 14 World Tour events they played this year, the Indian duo has lost only a solitary quarterfinal and a single semifinal. They also won five titles this season, four on the World Tour.
The season was also marked by their maiden win in a Super 1000 title at the Indonesia Open, where the Indian combo ended their eight-match losing streak against arch-nemesis Aaron Chia and Soh Woo Yik by outfoxing the faster Malaysians with a manipulated game. It was also the first title for an Indian doubles pair at the highest level of the sport.
They soon notched up another history by winning Indian badminton’s first-ever gold medal at the Asian Games. Despite India’s prolonged consistency in singles, that yellow metal had remained elusive for Indian shuttlers until Satwik and Chirag changed the anomaly in badminton’s 65-year history in the Games.
These feats enabled them to become the world no. 1 in what was another first-of-its-kind feat in Indian doubles and fourth in the country’s history.
Chirag would best sum up their season, saying: “The Asian Games gold was the most important title of the year, by far. First Super 1000, and the Asian Championships as well as becoming No.1 was important too, but definitely, Asian Games doubles gold and silver in team event stands out.”
Satwik and Chirag’s domination in world badminton came at a time when India was badly looking for a champion. Gone are the days when singles stars had a towering presence in the international arena. With Sindhu struggling to emulate her old touch back at 28, India found a new hero in the doubles duo.
Satwik and Chirag are now Indian badminton poster boys that, for a change, occurred in doubles. Every time, they step on the court, fans look for signs of champions in the duo.
Even as their season ended in a defeat and a missing berth at the World Tour Finals, the world no 2 Indian pair will hardly be bothered about their missing chance. They would rather train their eyes on a much bigger thing – the Olympic gold in Paris in 2024.