One would be wrong to assume Swastisairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty’s Thailand Open title special just because they defeated Chinese World Champions Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen to it, and thereby pulling up an over-brimming possibility for India in men’s doubles event at the World Championship.
The success came at a much more fundamental level and the title win, which had looked just a matter of time for months now, is just a byproduct of it. It was only three years back in 2016 when Malaysian coach Tan Kim Her decided to sever the duo’s ties with their respective partners back then to club them together. And while many on the domestic circuit admitted to the players’ unbridled potential, none envisioned how they successful they could become by buoying each other’s weaknesses.
Coming to the sport as the broad-shouldered shuttler with a gifted physique, Rankireddy has himself accepted on numerous occasions that he could only jump smash and was born to be the finisher. However, with a towering Shetty also dreaming of becoming a finisher and even gaining success in that role, winning the domestic titles in the U-15 and U-17 categories apart from the Badminton Asia U-17 title in 2013 alongside his then partner MR Arjun, the issue was that of a compromise.
But, being the elder of the two and also partly knowing the fact that Ranki’s strength made him more capable to potentially become one of the best finishers in the world one day, Shetty decided to take the fall.
“One of us had to change and become a net player and I was the one because Satwik had a very good smash. I thought a lot (about pairing with Rankireddy) when we started off. But gradually we started playing well and the thought didn’t strike,” said Shetty, in an interview with HT.
However, as Shetty’s coach, Uday Pawar, would state, it wasn’t easy for the lanky shuttler to undergo the change. He was playing against his instincts to make space for Ranki, something he had been gifted when he was learning the basics of the game.
“His earlier partners would create openings for him at the net. Now he had to do that for Satwik. Being a six-footer, more than a foot above the net, Chirag had to learn to crouch a lot to see the shuttle better and stay close to the net. He could make the changes because he was exceptionally talented,” says Pawar.
The sport of badminton, especially the doubles, requires intricate qualities in meticulous details and is quite paradoxical in that way given how much of soft skill is required for a game that exclusively demands brute smashers. It is also quite intriguing that a sport involving shuttlecocks, which are primarily made up of goose or duck feathers, is the fifth-fastest sport in the world after Drag Racing, Speed Skiing, Skydiving, and Formula One.
The shuttlers were oblivious of the uphill task ahead when they started off three years back. It was expectantly scrappy with them losing in the round of 16 at the Polish Open, bowing out in the round of 32 from Orleans International and the Vietnam International as well. 2017 wasn’t any different either with them starting with three back to back losses at Malaysia Masters, Syed Modi International Badminton Championships 2017, and Asia Mixed Team Championships 2017, before winning the Vietnam Challengers, which despite being a low key tournament was positive.
However, the small wins here and there did nothing to level them up and the losing streak continued with the duo winning nothing much of consequence in that entire year, with the next year going hopeless again. Apart from the Hyderabad Open title, which was an international event but with many Indian domestic players, the men’s doubles pair were reduced to mere participants in most others in 2018.
They reached the semifinal of the Indonesia Masters, pre-quarterfinal of the All England Open, final of the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, semis of the French Open, and final of the Syed Modi International Badminton Championships in 2018, always looking too near yet too far. Many said they were chasing a lost cause with the young duo already hitting the ceiling. Things were looking bleak when Rankireddy’s injury added further despair to it. Shetty had to play with Pranav Jerry Chopra and they didn’t look convincing despite managing to reach the quarterfinals of the Swiss Open.
Ranki returned in April and the duo quickly announced a statement by winning the Brazil International Challenge title. But, as much as that win seemed like a breath of fresh air for the Indian fans, the jinx wasn’t really broken for they entered the old loop almost immediately – bowing out in the semis of Denmark Challenge, being on the losing side of India’s dismal Sudirman Cup campaign, getting ousted in the pre-quarters of the Australian Open and Indonesia Open, and the quarter-finals of the Japan Open too - before Thailand happened.
With PV Sindhu still getting the jitters on the knockout stages, Kidambi Srikanth struggling with his perennially poor form, and Saina Nehwal struggling with her fitness, hardly anyone bothered to follow the Super 500 tournament after Srikanth and Nehwal were both eliminated in the pre-quarters. And it is exactly here that the men’s pair of Rankireddy and Shetty kept going when every other member in the contingent were already looking at the World Championships.
It is said that doubling the failure rate often takes one to success and whether it was the underdog badge or the growing belief of the years of failures at the international level, but the duo decided to persist. Ironically, Shetty was given the role of finisher, which he cherished once, as Ranki had a sore shoulder in the final match. But, when a man has nothing to lose he can only win and the role reversal role hardly mattered for the duo.
Though experts were quick to point out the soft adjustments that the duo made in their game for the tournament, and the different mentality that they brought to the table, this was a sheer product of persistence against continuous failure and criticism. For, as Ray Kroc always believed - Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent won’t. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius won’t. Unrewarded genius is practically a cliché. Education won’t. The world is full of educated fools. Persistence and determination alone are all-powerful.