‘Ice and fire’ was how Satwiksairaj Rankireddy described his doubles partnership with friend Chirag Shetty as he embraced him. Satwik is the Iceman to Chirag’s Maverick.
After they beat Malaysia’s Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik – often their kryptonite – 21-17, 21-12 in the Asian Games men’s doubles semifinal, Chirag took flight to jump into the arms of Satwiksairaj and soaked in the applause here at the Binjiang Gymnasium on Friday.
The pair of Satwik and Chirag is now the first Indian doubles team to become the World No. 1. Before their official coronation next week, the two will have an opportunity to add the Asian Games gold to their burgeoning trophy collection on Saturday in the final.
The Indians had a miserable 0-8 record against the Malaysians until June this year, but have now managed to beat them in their last two meetings since.
The scoreline and the relative ease with which they achieved the win in the semifinal win in Hangzhou was, however, unexpected. They rolled over the World No. 5 in 46 minutes.
“Because we lost eight times in a row,” chuckled Chirag, when looking back on what changed before the first win in the Indonesia Open in June.
Satwik chimed in, “On the ninth time, we were like ‘ abhi haar gaya to har gaya, bhai. Khelenge. Kya ye log humara peeche padha hai’ (if we lose now, then we lose. Let’s just play. Why are these guys after our lives like this).”
On a serious note, Chirag then added that it was a change in mindset before that match in Jakarta, which allowed them to break the shackles.
“The last two times we have been a lot smarter. We have not held ourselves back. In the previous eight times, we used to think that they had really fast hands, had a powerful attack and used to be a little more hesitant. We have played more freely the last two times. We were not thinking about the score, and focussed on playing as well as possible,” said Chirag.
Satwik would have been haunted by those fast hands when Soh smashed the first point of the match right onto his face. The Malaysian held his hand up in apology.
Then Chirag got India off to its first point with a smash of his own. It was then back-and-forth riveting attack versus defence as they traded blows in the first 20 points of the opening game with scores level 10-10.
Both Chirag and Satwik were superb in defence and not allowing the Malaysians to overpower them.
Satwik then helped into an 11-10 lead with an angled smash and from thereon, the Malaysians struggled to get back into the game.
They (Malaysians) made unforced errors in the net and in judgement with their leaves when trailing as the momentum swung in favour of the Indians as they moved to a six-game point, closing it out 21-17.
In the second game, India was up 4-0 as it kept up with its aggressive approach.
Aaron and Soh had a game to forget with the latter failing to return against the smashes from Satwik and Chirag, early in the game.
India quickly took an 11-3 lead in the mid-game interval and, while the opening game saw the local crowd enthralled by the skills on show, they became more subdued through the course of the second.
In no time, India was up 20-10 but Soh’s brilliance allowed the Malaysians to earn two match points before Chirag shut them down with a smash for the win.
Earlier in the day, India’s top-ranked singles player HS Prannoy suffered a straight 16-21, 9-21 loss to home favourite Li Shifeng in the men’s singles semifinal. The Indian finished his campaign with a bronze medal to add to his silver in the men’s team event.
“Unfortunately, for Prannoy bhaiyya, the fighter, the motivator, the king, it wasn’t to be,” said Satwik.
After the disappointment, the Indian doubles ace was then boosted by the news that India was assured of crossing the 100-medal mark for the first time in Asian Games history.
“Before coming in, we got the good news that India is assured of 100 medals so we got a lot of motivation from that,” said Satwik.
“We missed out in the team final. We wanted to hear the national anthem on the podium but it wasn’t to be. We took a pledge saying that one of us from our team would surely be there on the podium and allow us to hear our national anthem. So hopefully we have a chance tomorrow.”