Grand finale titans: Satwik-Chirag's record in high-stakes matches is key to their rise up the rankings

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty VCG/VCG via Getty Images

There is something about Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty in finals, that sets them apart in Indian sport. The men's doubles pair have won seven straight individual event finals in the last 19 months - a record of success and consistency at the highest level for an extended period that is rare for Indian athletes.

It's been a while since we've been able to say about any Indian athlete - Neeraj Chopra excepted - that their performance improves with pressure, the higher stakes. But with this 'Sat-Chi', stick them in the business end of a tournament and they are likely to win.

Sunday's Korean Open was their second straight title on the BWF World Tour and the fourth of 2023. And we are only in July.

Some of these wins are firsts for Indian badminton - a Super 1000 and Asia Championships gold, even a World Championship bronze that almost feels underwhelming given their current run.

In this streak, they've played the world No 1 pair, men's doubles legends 'Daddies' {Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan], the reigning and former world champions - beating them all to win medals. Nerves, what nerves?

The last time these two lost a final together was back in 2019, the French Open to the Indonesian 'Minions' [Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo], doubles legends in their own right, at a time when the Indians had not yet become the force they are now.

This kind of record, and belief and consistency it highlights, in finals is rare at the highest level in Indian sport.

The numbers back this belief. Consider this:

Since 2016, in their career - which is still very much young with a pandemic year shutdown in between - the duo have lost only three finals and won 15.

All three of these runner-up finishes came before the this version of Sat-Chi - The Commonwealth Games and Syed Modi in 2018 and the French Open in 2019. The year 2020 was a blip for all sports and 2021 was a series of such near misses, that it spurred the breakthrough 2022 which had evolved into an even better 2023.

Since the start of 2022, and coinciding with their time with coach Mathias Boe, their final record is 7/7, with a title on each rung of the BWF Tour, and gold medals in other big competitions. Indeed, their final record is much better than in semifinals and quarterfinals, at which stage they lose more often than in finals. That's a good indicator of big-game mentality.

What makes Satwik-Chirag so good in finals?

Apart from an ever improving technical and tactical game under Boe, one thing that has been seen in real time during big matches is their growing confidence and composure. Both a reason, and a factor of their improving success rate.

One thing that has been seen in real-time during big matches is their growing confidence and composure. Both a reason and a factor of their improving success rate.

Both Satwik and Chirag are stylistically aggressive players, with quick, dynamic, attacking points being their main currency.

Off court, and once they win, they are the most cheerful players you'd hope to see - The Gangnam Style dance celebration in South Korea being proof of their lighter personalities.

But on court, it's all about the aggro, the swift and striking shots... which was once a double-edged sword. The all-out attack would once leave them vulnerable, in defence and sometimes in attitude, which the opponent could poke holes in.

Lately, this susceptibility is also strengthened. The defence has developed steadily, as it should once a pair is around for a while at the highest stage.

And now, they remain calm even when the chips are down; whether it's fighting from a game down to win as they did in Dubai and Yeosu, or it is staying in the moment when a number of game or match points opportunities comes and go. Of course they still have moments of weakness, the nervy service errors and the extra time taken to serve at times, remain.

A large part of credit goes to Danish doubles coach Boe, who was not present in Korea and perhaps did his most energetic celebration yet, back home.

Sat-Chi: Fire, ice and everything nice for Indian badminton

And all of this is strung together through one main thing - belief. They truly believe they are as good as anyone, they call themselves Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal often and they put in the performances to prove their point.

In fact, Satwik and Chirag's belief is as high intensity as their winners, and their goals.

At the end of 2022, when interviewing them for ESPN India awards, the male athletes of the year had the usual, and one very specific targets for the upcoming season.

"In 2023 we are really looking forward to go one step further and achieve the targets we have set... We want to be more consistent on defence. We want to beat two very close friends of ours to whom we have lost every time [Aaron Chia - Soh Wooi Yik and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon - Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo]. Very close but they come into my dreams also sometimes (laughs)" Satwiksairaj Rankireddy

For a young pair still, to state this outright was refreshing. Halfway through the year, they achieved one half of this in style, beating world champions Soh and Chia at a packed Istora in a historic Indonesian Open win. The Minions are currently struggling with injury, and there is every reason to believe that final frontier will also be breached when the chance arrives.

Because this season - with its minor injury absences and slump - has already shown that Satwik and Chirag belong to the big stage. Indian badminton has had these kinds of super spurts before - Saina Nehwal in early 2010s, Kidambi Srikanth in 2017, PV Sindhu in major events (despite not having the best of numbers on BWF World Tour) But Satwik and Chirag are doing it on a much bigger stage - the Super 1000 was after all India's first across disciplines.

In the current men's doubles landscape, where the traditional heavyweights are fading and the big names erratic, Satwik and Chirag have both the right time and right tools to drill in and make it their own... with a world No 1 ranking within reach.

At their current stature - third seeds and now a new career high of world 2 - they are already among the very best.

At the Korea Open, they beat both the world No 1 and 2 pairs, the only ones ranked higher than them at the point, the latter for the first time after two tough losses at the first two Super 1000s of the year.

At the Indonesia Open, one of the biggest triumphs of their career for the manner and magnitude of the win, they beat both the world No 1 pair and then the reigning world champions - a pair they had a 0-8 record against.

At the Commonwealth Games, they ignored a loud home crowd (that they admitted was getting to them) to win gold.

At the Badminton Asia Championship, they fought back from multiple blips to win the gold in three hard-fought games.

The pattern is clear, the protagonists are clear-headed and the road ahead is full of possibility. In a year where the Olympic qualification has begun and the Asian Games is ahead, Satwik and Chirag's success is both important and exciting for Indian badminton. With the world No 1 ranking in reach, it's only natural to see expectations increase. But a throwaway line in a longer answer from Satwik before the start of the season has the answer:

"There will be a lot of expectations and we are looking forward to it."

Satwik and Chirag are also looking forward to what new history they can make.