Satwik-Chirag cap a superb year with historic Asiad gold
They smashed aside their Korean opponents in straight games to become the first Indians to win a badminton gold in any discipline at the Asian Games.
Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty entered Court 1 of BJ Gymnasium here to a welcome befitting the rockstars and 57 minutes later -- with Shetty having flung his sweaty t-shirt to an adoring crowd and both players having dispensed with their racquets deep into the stands -- they were dancing to the tune of Bollywood hit 'Dangal.' In between, they wrote a bit of history, smashing aside their Korean opponents in straight games to become the first Indians to win a badminton gold in any discipline at the Asian Games.
Their 21-18, 21-16 win also ended India's 41-year wait for an Asiad medal in men's doubles, the last success coming in the form of a bronze by the pair of Leroy D’Sa and Pradeep Gandhe in the 1982 edition. Satwik and Chirag stuck to their typical attacking game and uncorked the smashes early but Solgyu Choi and Wonho Kim stuck to their guns. Although the Koreans led for the better part of the first game, at no stage did the Indians look troubled. The air of inevitability, that hallmark of true genius, never deserted them.
The Koreans, against whom the Indian pair had a 2-0 H2H record coming into the final, took the early initiative and sped to an 8-4 lead that became 11-9 going into the first mid-game interval.
The Indians came out firing after the break but the Koreans kept pegging away, retrieving everything the Indians shot at them. At 18-15, it looked to be going the Koreans' way when Satwik-Chirag found the extra gear to take six straight points and take the first game.
"The shuttle they used here was a Yonex F90 which is a monster of a shuttle. It stayed true to its nature which meant the shots really travelled. There was no drift either, which meant the shuttle was always in play and the shots came really hard at you," national coach Pullela Gopichand said.
The second game panned out with a similar playbook as the Indians seized control from the middle court. Satwik-Chirag looked to kill the shuttle early, relying mostly on flat smashes and the occasional drops. The slowness of the court and the absence of drift meant the long tosses were out of question.
The win, though, was not entirely forged on raw power. From the sidelines, coaches Mathias Boe and Gopichand had read the court conditions to perfection and tweaked the players' positioning to cut possible gaps, making them stand adjacent to each other rather than the conventional "one-two position (one partner in front of the other)" to negate flat smashes.
"Look, on this court, the smashes did not come from a height. They came fast and flat and had we placed them in the one-two position, a flat smash from their (Korean) backcourt would have exploited the gaps on our side. So, we thought it best to position both players side by side," he explained.
The only flip side of such a move is the low reaction time, but the Indians backed their sharp reflexes. "Both sides hit the shuttle hard. At that pace, you can't line up a smash and hit. That's why there were a lot of half smashes but it worked well for us. These guys (Satwik and Chirag) are anyway among the hardest hitters in the world," Gopichand added.
"I think Satwik pulled us level from 18-15 (in the first game), playing some good shots," Shetty said. "At 18-18, I got a little more confident. And when we took the first one, I knew were in the game." They were more than 'in the game."
Having taken an early 4-3 lead, Satwik-Chirag never conceded the advantage. The Koreans threatened to catch up at 11-10 and then at 13-12, but the Indians reeled off four straight points to open a five-point lead.
The Koreans saved a match point but moments later, when Kim hit his return long, Satwik dropped to all-fours in salutation to coaches Boe and Gopichand while Shetty held his head in disbelief. The future of Indian badminton had gunned down history. In badminton's 61-year existence at the Asian Games, the sight of an Indian flag going on top was a first, but given Satwik-Chirag's growing pedigree, it was always a matter of when more than if.
That the pair exited the China Open in the first round a month back couldn't dent their confidence, nor the fact that Shetty was struggling with viral flu all week in Hangzhou. So much so that the pair even contemplated forfeiting their second match against Indonesia.
"That was a really long night. I barely slept that night, severe back pain, severe headache, went to the public clinic the next day. Got some medicines. I just prayed. Luckily, we got one day off after that first-round win and I recovered enough to play. We couldn't sleep last night either in excitement for the final," Shetty said.
Gopichand termed the Asian Games gold a tougher challenge than the Olympics just for the sheer quality of the competition. "For me, the Asian Games are tougher than the Olympics and these two have the capability to win medals in both those events. I'm very happy they peaked at the right time. If you look at the competition, teams such as Malaysia, Korea, Japan, and Indonesia send two teams. In all, there were nine nations here that sent two teams which is not the case at the Olympics," he said.
The fact that the badminton spread featured the reigning Olympic champions (Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin from Chinese Taipei), current world champions (Kang Min-hyuk and Seo Seung-jae from South Korea), 2022 world champions (Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik from Malaysia) besides the world No 1 (Fajar Alifan and Muhammad Rian Aridanto from Indonesia) and world No 2 (Wei Keng Liang and Chang Wang from China) illustrated his point.
"What separates these boys from the rest is that in most pairs you have one attacker and one defender. Here, both can just keep attacking. When they get on a roll, they can be unstoppable," the coach said. On what turned out to be an unforgettable night for Indian badminton, the boys proved him right.