Satwik-Chirag revel in attack, enter French Open final


For far too long, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty – badgered for their iffy defence – have had to learn to bend and weave and twist and lunge and dive.

For a pair of six-footers – even if they are professional doubles shuttlers – it’s a physically challenging part of the game they’ve had to hunker down and learn and unlearn and relearn and reboot into their instinct. Their impressive attack is almost the Cinderella chucked out of the pumpkin carriage to return to a modest existence as the duo play a positional game, slicing the drops and tempering the smashes.

But like Iron Man told Hulk at some point in the Marvel jamboree: “You’ve been tiptoeing too long, Big Man, you need to strut.”

On Saturday at the Stade Pierre de Coubertin in Paris, which loves Satwik-Chirag and a venue they love back, the two tall Indians finally got down to the towering Hulk’s strut. Through the week they’ve been defending impressively on the lateral flanks, skulking low, crouching and diving with the racquet parallel to the ground. Against Koreans Choi Sol Gyu and Kim Won Ho, the Indians explored the third dimension – rising and flying in the vertical plane for full-blooded steep smashes.

Last week, coach Mathias Boe quite audibly told Shetty off for shrinking away from the shuttle flying his way and almost being scared of facing up to the frontcourt battle. Most don’t appreciate the shrunk stance Shetty has been forced to adapt owing to being the set-up man, the soldier guarding the net and expected to intercept, deflect, reorient and toss it up for Satwik to boom down. It’s serious bending, and also a creative sacrifice so to speak, for someone who is no mug with the full-throated jump smash.

But against the rejigged Koreans, Shetty didn’t hold back and stayed crouched. He leapt the full altitude of his glorious jump every opportunity he got and sent them hurtling and hounding down to give wings to his restrained attack. It ended in a 21-18, 21-14 victory and their march into the finals of the Super 750 at Paris.

Winners at the India Open, Commonwealth Games, Thomas Cup and bronze medallists at World’s, the Indians continued their love affair with Paris – something they will hope will go on till 2024 when the Big Games happen. The duo play Lu Ching Yao and Yang Po Han of Chinese Taipei in the final on Sunday.

On Saturday, the Koreans who operate at a decent speed, though play a monochrome and monotone, would struggle to match the firepower of the Indian attack which wasn’t holding back. With their confidence rising as the week wore on, Satwik was loping about the backcourt and leaping high in the air to rain down steep hits. Taking off at 7-all in the opening set, the Indians wouldn’t stop peppering their opponents from the vantage.

The Danes tend to be tall and play the power game, but most Asian pairs have a height differential – with the smaller statured one manning front-court duties. The Indians for whom their tall athleticism ought to be a massive advantage, have had to prop up their defensive repertoire and nuance the attack to keep up with top pairs. In the semis, they offered a glimpse of an unsheathed gleaming smack of a sword, with the vertical assaults. Koreans never really stood a chance.

Yet, their rank 18 opponents would edge closer, sniffing a swipe at 19-16. What’s changed since Denmark was visible in Shetty’s wide-open eyes, as he pounced on the shuttle hungrily, shrugging off the reticence of last week. His eyes would light up in anticipation of the shuttle coming to him and he remained sharp to take set point.

At 20-18, Shetty would defend laterally, and Satwik would shape up on the backcourt for the big hit and send one scything. The Koreans scrambled, but the lift now was in Shetty’s crosshairs. With an explosive hop mirroring Satwik from the previous stroke, Shetty would now leap high and finish it off with a punch. Boe even smiled – a wide grin to erase all the Odense growls.

In the second, the Indians settled into a neat semicircle rotation and split duties. He might have the extra second manning the backcourt, but Satwik too has copped criticism in the past for his defence. He has put together a reasonably good one in the form of a squat defence and looks up to the task for shuttles hit at hip length in body attacks.

The latter half of the second set was all about two towering shuttlers leaping as if on trampolines, finding a release to all the tactical gameplans that have needed them to hunker down. The attack would swell and soar and roar. At 18-12, Chirag would even tell Satwik ‘aage aage’ to stay in front while he went for the shelling from the backcourt.

Making their second Tour final of the year, the Indians who don’t lose too many on Sundays would wrap it up with Chirag thwacking one aimed at the Korean legs.

On Sunday aiming to go the distance, the Indians play Taiwanese Yang Po Han and Lu Ching Yao, ranked No 25. The Indians start as favourites to win and will hope they light up the Olympic venue two years from now and acclimatise to a winning feeling.


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