Satwik-Chirag win Asian C'ships: History makers set new gold standard for Indian badminton

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty became the first Indian men's doubles pair ever to win gold at the Badminton Asia Championships. AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama

At 13-13 in the first game, the men's doubles final of the 2023 Badminton Asia Championships was already setting up to be a close finish.

Then, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty lost five straight points at this most crucial juncture, and soon the first game. Things were not looking much better in the second as they trailed 4-10 and then 7-13.

In the past, this may have been the moment their emotions got the better of them... Nerves, frustration, despair, even a dose of misplaced aggression eventually letting the match slip.

In the past, they would have most likely been in the shoes of their opponents in the final; making inopportune errors, letting the advantage slip, pressure evident.

But Satwik and Chirag are not the same players they were even a year ago. Still only 22 and 25 years of age, they are already seasoned players on the BWF Tour and have been in the business end of big tournaments regularly. So even when they were staring down the barrel, they didn't let that affect them. They stayed clam, took the blows on their chin, stuck to their fast-paced, attacking game and made a sensational fightback.

Their thrilling 16-21, 21-17, 21-19 win over Malaysia's Ong Yew Sin and Teo Ee Yi is one for the books, both for its importance and how it was won from the brink.

The calm of Champions

"It was a bad start in the first and half of second game, but we didn't give up. We kept our nerves; we know how to play these situations. So, we were waiting for the good rhythm and then take our chances. We were calmer in the second and third games," Satwik said after the match.

"After 13-8 we tried to play little smarter. Service was one thing that worked really well for us; it took them by surprise. We were also a lot calmer while defending as well, Chirag added.

Calm is the key word here, because as he has often noted in the past, Chirag wears his heart on his sleeve. This final was not for the faint-hearted; it was a testy, nervy contest with several umpire warnings about delaying play, a bit of showmanship and no hesitation is sending back body smashes.

To keep your composure amidst this, but still maintain the aggression to send down smash after jump smash is a delicate balance. Satwik and Chirag walked that thin line like veterans. The improvement of their mental strength has been noticeable. In an interview in December 2022, they had spoken about staying calm under pressure - an important aspect of their game they were working on with coach Mathias Boe.

"We want to be calm, play like a mature pair and not get hurried... Winning becomes easier when we don't think much about the situation," Satwik had said, while adding that he was the calm one in the partnership while Chirag could be the hot head.

"We don't want to get nervous [but] we want to show aggression when we are a bit down or under pressure. Then Chirag will take over that stage, he gets into that zone, he does his job, my thing is to be calm and enjoy that moment."

They seem to have fully incorporated this lesson into their arsenal - as we saw in the final. There was a 28-shot rally in the decider - long when you consider the swift points they usually are involved in - which Chirag took complete control of and ended with 3 straight smashes. There were multiple moments in the game when Satwik's solid defence kept the point running. There was little visible tension, even when they were trailing in the third game and then lost two championship points or when the umpire refused Satwik's request for a court wipe. Nothing fazed them in this final.

These are all the marks of experience and a champion mentality, something that Satwik and Chirag have earned on the job. Something that we have witnessed the development of in real time, from Thomas Cup to Commonwealth Games and World Championships.

History makers, once more

Satwik and Chirag won what is only the second Indian gold medal at the Badminton Asia Championships, and the first in 58 years. They are also the first doubles pair to reach the final of the event. Just one more in their lists of firsts. The value of this victory is not only in the history they created, it's in what it means in the present for Indian badminton.

Asia is the stronghold of the sport of badminton, with almost every major medallist in the sport coming from the continent (Carolina Marin and Viktor Axelsen are the anomalies here), more so in men's doubles. The men's doubles draw this year included reigning world champions Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik, reigning Olympic champions Lee Yang, Wang Chi-Lin, Fajar Alfian and Muhammad Rian Ardianto, top seeds and winners of the two Super 1000s so far this year, and the legendary Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan to name a few.

That Satwik and Chirag are the champions of this field is a hugely significant achievement.

The men's doubles tour is an open draw the moment - Chia and Soh have been erratic, the Daddies were suffering physically in their quarterfinal against Indians, the Olympic champions had to retire mid-match and the Minions are not even playing due to an injury setback. And in this open field, Satwik and Chirag are not just one of the top pairs to watch out for, they also believe that they are the top dogs.

As the Olympic qualification period begins tomorrow, with the Sudirman Cup up next, they are currently India's best bet of the biggest silverware on tour.

The two have their own sets of injury setbacks in the four months of this year - pulling out of their title defence at India Open in January and then mid-match during the Madrid Masters in March. But with two titles in the bag already, they will enter the biggest part of the season with confidence of champions.

This can mean only one thing - watch out for more firsts in Indian badminton.