‘Need a good heart to play doubles’: Satwiksairaj Rankireddy reflects on his Thomas Cup-winning pairing with Chirag Shetty


The 21-year-old from Amalapuram speaks about what it takes took to become a match-winning duo for India.

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Shared News: June 5, 2022 12:03:57 pm
Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty in action.

It’s a bit like the rhyme-wars and punchline-disses of hip-hop’s rival emcees, with the streets lapping up every back-and-forth of opposing crews. The competitive juices turn lyrically snarky, but the mutual respect and admiration remains intact, as they start thriving off opponents’ verbal hostility. Satwiksairaj Rankireddy oozes a rapper’s vibe when he declares: “Tum Denmark se hai, toh main Amalapuram se hoo (If you are from Denmark, I’m from Amalapuram)” in the softest, most matter-of-fact of Andhra drawls.

He isn’t exactly connoting his Konaseema district location. This is Godavari rap going head-to-head with the gushing River Gudena, albeit on a doubles badminton court, with his buddy and fellow Thomas Cup champion, Chirag Shetty in tow.

The object of his affable affliction is Anders Skaarup Rasmussen, one half of the Danish pairing with Kim Astrup, whom the Indians tossed aside in the semifinals of the Thomas Cup triumph last month. The memories unpack in short bursts of chuckles, as Satwik says, “I like those guys (the Danish pair’s antics), and I always say, ‘aur kitna karoge?’ At the end of the day, I’ll only win. Rasmussen keeps doing funny things, my ego is hurt, and then I play even better.”

Recalling the Danes’ Saturday semis shenanigans, Satwik speaks of how his Amalapuram swag uncoiled. “Anders has this habit of interrupting my rhythm when I’m serving, to say, ‘Hey Ranki, just wait.’ Ab main pehle hi ruk jaata hoo. (Now I pause on my own and throw him off). I mean, all these mental games, I’ve seen them at my Amalapuram district meets. Earlier, in previous close losses, we would get nervous, desperately searching for rhythm. This time, under pressure, we didn’t get tense. I remembered all the tricks Amalapuram boys played on court,” he says.

Satwik had spent the eve before the semis, shooting quizzical looks at India’s Danish coach, Mathias Boe, trying to comprehend how professional coaches grapple with split loyalties. “I was thinking if I was, let’s say, coaching China against India, how I would feel. Deep inside, I’d support India only and give China all wrong advice! But Boe had no sympathy for Denmark,” he recalls, like a child discovering some adult wisdom.

Boe had shared with the Indians how he had personally not had the best of campaigns when Denmark won the 2016 Thomas Cup. “He said, ‘but you have to stay together and cheer for each other.’ When Prannoy fell down against Gemke, I got doubts briefly of whether he’d be able to move on court. But I was confident of his strategy when he chose the wrong (drifty) side to start. When Gemke went on a full-out attack, I smiled and knew we were winning this. We trusted our teammates to win. That’s bonding.”


Satwik remembers watching ‘Saina didi’ on Neo Sports as a pre-teen, but not much of international men’s doubles, though snatches of conversations where his grandparents discussed in 2011 how India couldn’t ever win the Sudirman Cup (mixed team) because of paucity of proper doubles players was his earliest introduction to India’s pairings plight. “I wasn’t a badminton lover as a child and there were no Telugu doubles pairings’ names I heard of growing up in Amalapuram,” he says.

His father though was a certified national umpire, and had made the trip to Hyderabad to officiate during the 2009 World Championships that India hosted. After his linesmen’s duties were over on semis day, Kasi Viswanath would go and sit amongst a small two dozen-strong contingent of Chinese supporters in the stands, as the shuttle superpower romped to four of the five gold medals. “It’s when Chinese men’s doubles world champion Fu Haifeng, considered one of the greatest of all time (2 Olympic golds and 4 World titles), with the best attacking game, threw his racquet into the stands after winning. My father, who’s as tall as me (very tall), jumped and caught the racquet.”

Seekers are keepers. So, while other parents hobnobbed with Indian officials to find funding for their children, Kasi Viswanath out-jumped the Chinese fan contingent for the southpaw’s precious sabre – a Li Ning Turbo Charging N9. “My father believed, you don’t need money to play badminton, as much as you need a racquet.” That clarity left a mark on the fast-growing son. Haifeng won 5 straight Thomas Cup titles – from 2004 to 2012. Satwik won his first in 2022.

“I started enjoying doubles because of the PBL team camaraderie. People used to say doubles is bad, blah-blah, only singles matter. I thought, ‘we’ll be the change.’ Padukone sir and Gopi bhaiyya built the highway for singles; me and Chirag have begun building the road for doubles,” he says.

The triumph in Thailand was a milestone, but Bangkok was also a starting point for the 22-year-old Satwik. “I’d won a sub-junior U15 silver in mixed doubles at Thailand, and a bronze in doubles back then. We played our first semis after the pandemic at the same venue,” he says. The Indians won their first Super 500 at Thailand beating China, in 2019, to announce their arrival.

Satwik remembers the tragi-comical backroom scenes of winning that title. “We almost conceded in the quarters after my shoulder was hurt playing mixed doubles. I told Chirag, ‘bhai, aaj thoda dard hai, toh mujhe cover kar de.’ He told me, ‘mera bhi abdomen toot raha hai, tu handle kar le.’ It was like one guy couldn’t defend, the other couldn’t hit! We wanted to concede in the semis also, but the physios did the job and taped us up. And we won.”

It took them 15 lonesome days to physically recover.

This time everyone fetched up relatively fit, though Satwik reckons it was the team-spirit that proved the balm on bruised muscles. “I’m very close to Srikanth and Prannoy bhaiyya. There was no selfishness in the team. Even when Arjun-Dhruv didn’t play, they were the loudest in screaming ‘khelo, khelo, maaro, maaro.’ After the Germany tie, Chirag started carrying his big Marshall speaker into the dugout, and we played DJ songs there and screamed Oi Oi Oi after every point.”


A pre-departure briefing had infused realism and optimism into the team too. “Fans didn’t see it that way, but we knew that China had been a strong team for a long time, but this time they were young and not a threat. Korea were legends in the past, but not strong this time. Srikanth was the best second singles player, Prannoy a strong MS3, and we just had to pull out one point from doubles. Lakshya would come good.” The Chinese Taipei tie India lost 3-2, had been a jolt for the Satwik-Chirag pairing after they got to 21-19 against the Olympic champions, before going down.

It was the night Chirag Shetty went missing for 3 whole hours, according to Satwik, after driving himself into one right state of self-flagellating.

“We made lots of errors, went totally blank under pressure, and were very disappointed. Chirag was really upset and kept saying, ‘sorry, I couldn’t win, maine kuchh khela hi nahi, bohot mistake kiya.’ Then he disappeared at 10 PM till 1 AM, and no one knew where he disappeared. I thought he was in another teammates’ room, but later he said he was speaking to his psychologist. I didn’t say anything to him,” he says. A large part of growing as a pairing for Satwik has been knowing when to rev Chirag up, and when to say nothing at all.

Satwik would sleep that night confused, not knowing who the draw would throw up as quarters’ opponents and pray for 5 whole minutes next morning at 7.30 am, hoping they’d avoided Korea or China against whom they’d lost in quarters in recent times. China had beaten India last time, with Sameer Verma losing from 20-17 match point, a particularly scarring memory.

“When we heard it’s Malaysia, I said, ‘aaj humara match hai’. Malaysia fielded a scratch pair, and initially I was surprised at how confident they must be to try that. We knew no one respects India as a doubles team, but we decided we won’t care about respecting them either. Personally, we played that match fighting like Rafa Nadal, and not coolly like Federer. We kept pressure on them from the start, and could see they were in a panic. Till then I wasn’t in my zone; in the quarters I found my rhythm,” he says.

After dousing Denmark, with Indonesia and its noisy fans to beat for the title, Satwik made a rare request at the team-meeting. “First time, I said, ‘bhaiyya aaj mereko baat karna hai’, and I told them to enjoy the finals and not think about the crowd, as only rhythm matters. I had told Krishna, we will win 3-0 before the tie. Lakshya, who is usually all masti all the time outside, had become very serious during the matches. I was sure he’ll win.” Srikanth’s faceoff against Jonatan Christie was tipped to be the crucial one, and Satwik-Chirag went in against Ahsan-Kevin hoping they could ease a bit of pressure off him.

“We had never won from 20-17 and a set down. But we knew Indonesia needed that point more, so we piled on the pressure on Kevin. We knew Srikanth and Prannoy could win, but wanted to make it easy for them. When Ahsan tapped into the net, I knew God gave us that point,” he says. Satwik’s parents were in Tirupati that day for an offering, and Satwik’s mother would tell him she was heading into the temple while the match played out. “I had to give God a chance to grant us luck.”

When the tie was won, all celebration plans went berserk. “I had told my brother I’ll do some Pushpa step. And we kept waiting for Chirag to fling his T-shirt. But in the end, I think we just kept shouting and did nothing,” he laughs. In the quarters, he had riffed Virat Kohli’s “racquet does the talking” celebration that Satwik had watched Kohli dish out to Australian crowds, and in the semis, he leaned on Surya Kumar Yadav’s “keep calm, I’ll get this done,” gesture.

He wanted to slip in a Dhoni hat-tip, but ran out of matches to win post the final.


While his mother had prayed to Lord Venkateswara ‘who got the shuttle shifted thodasa idhar udhar over net-chords’ as Satwik half-jokes, another mummy – Chirag’s – had earlier rustled up a prawn curry and mutton biryani when the duo trained for a few weeks in Mumbai, under Mathias Boe.

Like a good steam engine that can lug an entire train along, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy needs fuelling food to get his badminton chugging along. It was this very dire concern that had him worried, when Shetty requested him to travel to Mumbai for Boe, who then wasn’t formally the Indian coach. “Food matters big-time to me. I see food as my main recovery. And when I have good food, my game goes well. If I eat junk, everything goes wrong,” says India’s non-green Hulk. “In Hyderabad I have my physios, my comfort, my food. I was very worried how I’d adjust in Mumbai,” he recalls of the months before the Thomas Cup.

All his worries were unfounded, as Shetty’s family hosted him and a bunch of sparring juniors at their hotel. “There were A/C courts, the reception we got was extraordinary. We had a jacuzzi for recovery. His family sent down juices and fruits and Chirag’s mother made us prawn curry,” he recalls. A well-fed Satwik is a happy Satwik. And though this sojourn at Malad was different from the usual Marine Drive stays he was accustomed to playing Tata Open in his early years at CCI, it opened his mind to training outside his comfort zone.

But just so he didn’t miss the South Bombay jaunt, Chirag surprised him one day with tickets to an IPL game – RCB vs DC. “Good memories I made,” he says.

As leviathan as Satwik can get on the court for opponents, the young man can also be a hibernating, defanged coiled monster, out of sheer painful shyness. It often made life difficult for him in his early years of starting a partnership with both Chirag Shetty and Ashwini Ponappa in mixed doubles, and earned the coach’s ire.

“Personally, it was very difficult for me because I had a communication problem,” he says of the debilitating issue that gave him jitters. “Doubles is about talking to the partner, and initially I needed to talk a lot of Telugu which my partners didn’t understand. I was very comfortable with my earlier partner Krishna (who spoke the same language) because Telugu came naturally from within, but with Chirag bhai I needed 1-2 seconds to ponder and convey what I was thinking after translating. I was petrified I’d come across as rude for saying something wrong so I’d shut up. Even with Ashwini akka, I just wouldn’t talk, which caused problems.”

It was in watching the Indonesian legends – Hendra Setiawan and Mohammed Ahsan, that Satwik would glean important lessons. “You need a good heart to play doubles. It’s like making a good marriage. You have to adjust every day. It’s not like singles, where you can just change your team around you. Here you have to take your partner along and go through that journey of tough losses. Hendra and Ahsan are very kind to each other, they never react to mistakes. We want to be those cool, calm guys like the Koreans who are in sync on court and know exactly where the partner is playing even without looking behind,” he says.

With no legacy or traditions to really follow in India, Satwik and Chirag pretty much charted their own course in becoming an elite pair. Though, Satwik had a quiet, unfussed role model in 2016 Olympian Sumeeth Reddy. “It’s easy to say Hendra is an inspiration, or Koreans are. But I watched as Sumeeth Reddy and Manu Attri tried their best to become a better pairing in Hyderabad. Sumeeth would work very hard, never get bothered by politics, never skipped practice, just turned up every day and put in the hard work. For me as a junior, he was the top standard of how much more effort I needed to put in to become a better player. I’d watch Sumeeth go through tough recovery after a tough session. The fire inside him was unparalleled, he never gave up.”

As India raised the bar in doubles, with a Thomas Cup win, Satwik reckoned he owed the Indian pairings before him, gratitude. For trying.

Epilogue: It bothers Satwik that the Thomas Cup team did not return and celebrate the triumph together. “It hurt me a little, because some of us returned early. We didn’t really celebrate together at home. Then everyone had different commercial commitments,” he says.

The title will be tough to defend, he reckons. “Things will change, opponents will get stronger, though the spirit of unity will stay for CWG and Asian Games. Doubles will change in India, and I’m sure we’ll soon be considered a 5-match team, not just a 3-singles one.”

The Thomas Cup triumph was also the perfect cue for the Indian men’s team to slay some mental demons, built over sustained trolling of most of the players when they weren’t the smouldering hot property they became, after winning the team championship.

“Deep inside trolling affects us. There’s too much negativity on social media and we all have had to deal with it. I wish fans understood, we go through injuries, have personal issues, and saying things like ‘you should stop playing badminton’ really hurts us. They don’t bother about our struggles, and it reached a point where we were scared to post our thoughts thinking ‘abhi kya hi bolenge log’. We would think twice before making reels, and I wondered, can’t we party or what? Or shouldn’t we even take a selfie? Saina didi made badminton in India, and look at how badly they troll her for posting selfies,” he muses.

Unsolicited advice for Satwik from his trolls? “Yea, they say, smash nai maar rha hai aajkal. They don’t realise I’m adding variations. Or that I’m not a robot to send down 1000 smashes per match,” he roars. At 22-21 in the second set against the Indonesians, Satwik sent down a steep smash that bisected the Indonesians. “That one was too good,” raps Satwik, needing no social media validation.