Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty walked onto Court 1 of the BJ Gymnasium here to a welcome fit for rock stars and 57 minutes later, with Shetty tossing his sweaty t-shirt to an adoring crowd and both players having given up their racquets in the stands, – were dancing to the tunes of the Bollywood hit ‘Dangal’. In between, they wrote a bit of history, crushing 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 victory also ended India’s 41-year wait for an Asian medal in men’s doubles; The latest success came in the form of bronze for the pair of Leroy D’Sa and Pradeep Gandhe in the 1982 edition. Satwik and Chirag maintained their typical attacking game and uncorked the blows early, but Solgyu Choi and Wonho Kim held firm. Although the Koreans led for most of the first game, at no point did the Indians appear to be in trouble. The air of inevitability, that hallmark of true genius, never left them.
The Koreans, against whom the Indian pair had a 2-0 H2H record entering the final, took the early initiative and accelerated to an 8-4 lead that became 11-9 at the first mid-game interval. .
The Indians came out firing after the break, but the Koreans continued to stay away, recovering everything the Indians shot at them. At 18-15, it seemed like things were going in the Koreans’ favor when Satwik-Chirag found the extra gear to score six points in a row and take the first game.
“The wheel they used here was a Yonex F90, which is a monster of a wheel. It stayed true to its nature, which meant the shots really traveled. There was also no drift, which meant the wheel was always in play and the shots came really hard on you,” said national coach Pullela Gopichand.
The second game played out with a similar playbook as the Indians took control from half court. Satwik-Chirag looked to kill the shuttle early, relying mostly on flat hits and occasional drops. The slowness of the course and lack of drift made long throws out of the question.
The victory, however, was not based entirely on raw power. From the bench, coaches Mathias Boe and Gopichand perfectly interpreted the conditions of the court and adjusted the position of the players to reduce possible spaces, placing them side by side instead of the conventional “one-two” position ( one partner in front of the others)” to cancel flat hits.
“Look, on this court, the hits didn’t come from a height. They were quick and flat and if we had placed them in the one-two position, a flat hit from their (Korean) backcourt would have exploited the gaps on our side. So That’s why we thought the best thing was to place both players next to each other,” he explained.
The only disadvantage of such a move is the short reaction time, but the Indians backed up their sharp reflexes. “Both sides hit the shuttlecock hard. At that rate, you can’t line up a smash and a 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 best .the toughest batsmen in the world,” Gopichand added.
“I think Satwik tied us 18-15 (in the first game), playing some good shots,” Shetty said. “In 18-18, I had a little more confidence. And when we won the first one, I knew we were in the game.” They were more than “in the game.”
Taking an early 4-3 lead, Satwik-Chirag never conceded the lead. The Koreans threatened to reach 11-10 and then 13-12, but the Indians scored four points in a row to open a five-point lead.
The Koreans saved a match point, but moments later, when Kim made his long return, Satwik got on all fours to greet coaches Boe and Gopichand while Shetty held his head in disbelief. The future of Indian badminton had overturned history. In the 61 years of badminton’s existence at the Asian Games, seeing an Indian flag aloft was a first, but given Satwik-Chirag’s growing pedigree, it was always more a matter of when than if.
The fact that the pair crashed out of the China Open in the first round a month ago couldn’t affect their confidence, nor could the fact that Shetty was battling the viral flu all week in Hangzhou. So much so that the pair even thought about losing their second match against Indonesia.
“That was a very long night. I barely slept that night, I had a bad back pain, a bad headache, I went to the public clinic the next day. I got some medicine. I just prayed. Luckily, we had a day off after from that first round. “I won and recovered enough to play. We couldn’t sleep last night either because of the excitement of the final,” Shetty said.
Gopichand called the Asian Games gold a tougher challenge than the Olympics simply because of the high quality of the competition. “For me, the Asian Games are tougher than the Olympic Games and these two have the ability to win medals in both events. I am very happy that they peaked at the right time. If you look at the competition, teams like Malaysia, “Korea, Japan and Indonesia send two teams. In total, there were nine nations here that sent two teams, which does not happen in the Olympic Games,” he said.
The fact that the badminton broadcast featured the reigning Olympic champions (Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin of Chinese Taipei), the current world champions (Kang Min-hyuk and Seo Seung-jae of South Korea), the 2022 world champions (Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik of Malaysia) plus world number one (Fajar Alifan and Muhammad Rian Aridanto of Indonesia) and world number two (Wei Keng Liang and Chang Wang of China) illustrated his point.
“What differentiates these guys from the rest is that in most pairs there is an attacker and a defender. Here both can keep attacking. When they get on a roll, they can be unstoppable,” said the coach. In what turned out to be an unforgettable night for Indian badminton, the boys proved him right.