"If doubles players get same treatment as singles, a change will come" — Chirag Shetty
Although the times are changing in the landscape of Indian badminton, Chirag Shetty eyes room for improvement and a change in the system in the coming years.
Indians may put all their money on a good Bollywood 'masala' movie with plenty of plot twists and turns that leaves the audience on the edge of their seats, their nails having a hard time - but when it came to Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy's dramatic run at the Tokyo Olympics, the turbulence of emotions unleashed was least expected. Indian badminton has been on a bouncy ride but when it comes to doubles, it has been Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy who are now plurally towing doubles into greater heights. The road is a long way and Satwik-Chirag have made a good head start already and their Tokyo Olympics outing was nothing short of a good ol' thriller.
With the 2020 Thomas & Uber Cup Finals scheduled to begin from 9th October at Aarhus, Denmark, the badminton season has tinkered to life after nearly two months of lull with the mixed team championships at the Sudirman Cup in Vantaa, Finland. Ahead of the prestigious Thomas Cup event where the men's team has been clubbed in Group C with defending champions, China, Netherlands and Tahiti, Chirag Shetty took time out of his schedule to chat with The Bridge, in between hustling from one airport stop to the other, onwards to Denmark.
Reliving the Tokyo Olympics once again
It may have been two months since the curtain drew on the Tokyo Olympics but the hangover is far from over and Chirag Shetty still remembers every detail of his debut outing in the Men's Doubles alongside his partner, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy. Receiving the toughest draw, the World No. 10 pair of Satwik-Chirag had the most formidable opponents to tussle with and even though they went toe to toe with them - defeating World No. 3 Chinese Taipei pair and eventual gold medallists, Wang Chi-lin and Lee Yang in the opening clash, things were not meant to be.
"When I look back at it, it was a bittersweet experience for me and Satwik. Going into the Olympics, I would have wanted to win 2 out of the 3 matches in the Group Stage. I think in normal circumstances, we thought we would be through if we won 2 out of 3 because we knew that the group was extremely tough - it was the Group of Death and all the 3 pairs were really, really good," Chirag recalls distinctly.
The silver medallist pair from the 2018 Commonwealth Games did fulfil their objective of winning the 2 out of 3 matches - their only stutter arriving against the World No. 1 duo from Indonesia of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sukamuljo a.k.a The Minions. However, in the aforementioned dramatic turn of events, the World No. 1 pair went on to lose against the World No. 3 and owing to marginal differences, ended up pushing Satwik-Chirag down the top 2 spot of Group A.
Satwik-Chirag's ouster EXPLAINED:— The Bridge (@the_bridge_in) July 27, 2021
Indonesia and Chinese Taiper have 2⃣ wins and so would India if they win here.
However, they will go out on the number of games won in total (even if they win in straight games)
India 4-3 #Tokyo2020 | #Badminton pic.twitter.com/NfisbAZETD
"But unfortunately, the results were very unexpected and everything turned around in the last moment so I think it was difficult to digest, but that's how sport is and you have to live with it. But that aside, I was really happy with my first experience at the Olympic Games. We played some really good badminton but unfortunately we were not able to enter the quarter finals," Chirag retrospected, a whole lot of longing still in his voice about the missed chance to enter the knock-outs.
However, dramatic or not, the experience at the Tokyo Olympics was memorable for the talented badminton doubles player who had the time of his life rubbing shoulders with the other greats whilst staying at the Olympics Village. "My favourite part would have to be my experience at the Olympic village, I think it was something different. To know that you are among the best athletes in the world - the fittest, the smartest, the strongest, and to be one amongst them...that feeling is indescribable," the 24-year-old enthusiastically mentioned, still on cloud nine about being one of the selected few who make the Olympic cut.
More than anything, the Olympics presents itself with a learning curve and Chirag Shetty has learned to ride along it well. "The biggest takeaway would be that..we've played all of these pairs before but at the stage of the Olympics, it is something different. Even if you have lost to that same opponent 10 times or won against them 10 times, at the Olympics, anything can happen and anybody can defeat anybody," Chirag pointed out, recalling their brave outing against Wang Chi-lin and Lee Yang in a heated decider.
Double-trouble in Indian badminton to reduce soon?
With the dust from Tokyo now beginning to settle and the BWF badminton season picking up with the Sudirman Cup, a fresh new Olympic cycle has already begun. Originally scheduled to resume his season at the Sudirman Cup itself last month, Chirag Shetty was eager to get back on the court before an ill-timed injury came his way. However, with that taken care of now, Chirag is set to restart his season with Satwiksairaj at the Thomas Cup.
"I'm really, really excited to play at the Thomas Cup and be back on the court. The preparations have been good..unfortunately, I suffered an injury before the Sudirman Cup but now it's healed, I really look forward to playing again," the Mumbai-based shuttler excitedly revealed.
That said, all did not look well for the Indian badminton squad that went to Vantaa as they failed to win the ties against Thailand and China and only won against Finland, in a futile redeeming act. With 2-time Olympic medallist and reigning World Champion PV Sindhu and former World No. 1 Saina Nehwal absent, it was just Kidambi Srikanth, Sai Praneeth, Ashwini Ponnappa and N. Sikki Reddy who were veterans amidst a bunch of debutants.
More than the singles outings, what earned the most bricks and bats from former doubles players like Jwala Gutta was the performance of the doubles players. Gutta, along with many, were appalled to see Sai Praneeth, a singles specialist, playing Mixed Doubles. Earlier, Indian badminton legend, Prakash Padukone also worried about the absence of quality, medal-prospective players after Sindhu and Satwik-Chirag and worried about the doubles ecosystem in the country.
However, Chirag Shetty, refuses to see the downsides and chooses to look on the brighter side of things and blots out a more optimistic picture, being an active player on the tour. "As far as Men's Doubles is concerned, Dhruv Kapila and MR Arjun played some really good matches at the Sudirman Cup. Close game against the Chinese pair and winning the first match against the Thai pair...because they went on to defeat some really good opponents in the next couple of matches. In the men's doubles, we do have a lot of players who are coming up and challenging higher-ranked players. You can see a few good wins in the coming tournaments," Chirag assured with a lot of hope.
Chirag's worry extends to the women's doubles, however, where he feels the lack of depth after veterans Ashwini Ponnappa and N. Sikki Reddy. Sure, there are pairs like Tanisha Crasto and Rutaparna Panda but experience is not on their cards yet to take on the best of the game. "In the women's doubles however, we do not have a pair after Ashwini and Sikki who is at par with them. Although we can have a few pairs that can actually reach that level - all they need to do is have that experience. If they work hard, push themselves and play a lot of tournaments and gain a lot of exposure, I hope they can come up at that level," Chirag sincerely wished.
There is no dearth of talent when it comes to badminton and India but somewhere there is a large gap between identifying talent and grooming them for execution at the top levels. "It's not that there is no such talent but it's just that you need some time..it's still early stages. We need to give everybody time to grow up. The Sudirman Cup is not a small event - it's the biggest event in the Mixed Team sector, so it takes time. Lot of them were first-timers here so they will get better with time," Chirag mentioned, reflecting on India's largely disappointing outing at the biennial event.
The balance beam of singles and doubles - how equal are they in India?
While Jwala Gutta lashed out against the existing system and how singles and doubles do not get the same attention in India, Chirag Shetty seemed to echo her thoughts, however not so severely as he firmly believes a change is around the corner.
"The times are definitely changing although yes, we did, at some point get a step-motherly treatment when compared to singles players. But things are changing," Chirag admits before optimistically looking ahead. "The number of people who watch singles is also increasing and is almost at par with those who watch singles. When we were in Tokyo, everybody was watching doubles and they were really, really happy with the way we played. The fans were especially encouraging. The times are changing and someday we will be at par with the singles players," the 2019 Thailand Open winner mentioned.
But, a glaring disparity does exist between singles and doubles and the balance beam is not the most neutral when it comes to this in Indian badminton. Singles in badminton has had a long-standing ecosystem but doubles does not enjoy the same perks causing the major line of difference and delaying its much-needed growth in the nation. Somewhere, the mindset needs to change and thanks to Satwik-Chirag at least, the change has been initiated and doubles is chipping its way up to the same pedestal as singles - albeit the distance is still a lot to cover.
Chirag continues, "Having said that, when you compare singles and doubles and the number of sponsors and stuff...we really don't get that much attention. We are still behind as far as attracting sponsorships are concerned. That's a place where we need corporate sponsors for doubles players as well," the doubles specialist candidly mentions.
"If people know that yes, doubles players will also get the same treatment as singles, then more and more people will not be scared to play doubles from a young age. The attitude of the corporate houses needs to change towards us and only then I can see doubles coming up at par with singles," Chirag puts forth categorically and realistically.
It will take a while for the balance beam to reach its equilibrium but after Satwik-Chirag's outing at the Tokyo Olympics, doubles is on the verge of seeing a new dawn, especially on the men's side. "People's expectations have risen a lot after we played some really good matches in the Olympics. We are happy with the way we played. We don't have a pair who is close to us at the moment but we do have other good pairs that are coming up like Krishna and Arjun who played well in France. There is also Dhruv and Arjun who recently broke into the Top 50," Chirag reflected.
Sometimes sports brings you at a spot where no matter what you do, you will fall a bit short in the end. But it's been a terrific journey for @Shettychirag04 & @satwiksairaj and entire nation is proud of the way you have played 💪🏻🇮🇳#SmashfortheGlory#badminton#Tokyo2020 pic.twitter.com/mypxCSssy2— BAI Media (@BAI_Media) July 27, 2021
Ever the optimistic person, Chirag Shetty is sure that a system change can occur if more successful pairs come up and help change the singles-dominated narrative Indian badminton has enjoyed. "Men's doubles is looking up - there is Ishan Bhatnagar and Sai Prateekh. If one or two more pairs come up, the whole system can change. In the coming years, I hope more pairs can play at the highest level," he affirms, as he readies to do his part of changing the narrative step by step, starting with the upcoming Thomas Cup challenge.