Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty spring a surprise, enter Korea Super Series quarter-finals

Against a top Taipei pair which has consistently made quarters of Super Series and had a clutch of tier-two titles last year, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty matched their opponents’ pace especially at the net.

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty took another stride towards hooking India’s interest to the hugely exciting and fast-paced men’s doubles event when they made their maiden Super Series quarters at Korea. The young Indian pairing emerged on the right side of the three-setter, beating 7th seeds Lee Jhe-Huei/Lee Yang of Chinese Taipei 23-21, 16-21, 21-8 at Seoul in their second round.

While the weekend will witness singles stars PV Sindhu and Sameer Verma go deeper into the draw — including a potential finals showdown in a World Championship rematch with Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara — the men’s doubles win over the World No 9 pair was an important result for what has been India’s quietest event internationally. Sindhu plays Japanese World No 19 Minatsu Mitani in the quarters. “We didn’t have any pressure. We just stuck to our plan and won,” Satwik told the Indian Express later.

The conditions were challenging, and it helped that Satwik had played alongside Ashwini Ponappa in mixed doubles. “From one side the court was too fast, and the other side had drift, We could both adjust very well to those conditions,” Satwik added. The Indian World No. 39 had been World No 207 at the same point last year, and as such have had to come to terms with the considerably higher pace on which the seniors game operates as against the juniors.

But against the top Taipei pair which has consistently made quarters of Super Series and had a clutch of tier-two titles last year, the rookie Indians matched their opponents’ pace especially at the net. While Satwik is known to be a cool customer raining down smashes from the back, it was Chirag who came into his own on Thursday.

Leading at 16-14, it was crucial that the Indians kept their nerve — cause that’s when the top teams raise their tempo and finish off challenges. “We were playing our best, there was no tension. We just wanted to enjoy winning every point,” Satwik said. The Taipese pair would launch their surge picking the next three points in a hurry and the Indians were down 17-19 before they got on top of the exchanges. While they couldn’t convert two set points, Chirag imposed his authority in the closing parries to roar to a set lead at 23-21.

The Taipese would take off from 14-all in the second, and level set scores at 21-16, but the Indians were back to thumping down winners in the decider. They would lead 11-4, and never take their foot off the accelerator to make their first Last-8 in a Super Series winning the final set 21-8.

It’s been a roller-coaster two months for India’s exciting new pair – they are third behind Manu Attri-Sumeeth Reddy and Shlok-Arjun. Withdrawn from the New Zealand GP meet after the US swing, the two were put through a one-month rigour of intense physical workouts. “10 rounds of the track were crazy in the first week when we returned with no off days or jet lag permitted,” Chirag had said ahead of the Worlds. “While we were improving on our fitness generally, the whole training was geared towards improving our consistency in defense and smashing with lots of multi-feeds,” Chirag had said.

Both were back-court slam-bangers before they were paired off. “Initially it was tough to adjust because I’d be longing to drop back and hit. But eventually when I was told to play at the net, I started enjoying the more creative and artistic shots in the front court. Satwik smashes well, but I learnt to play the soft-strokes at the net that are necessary for the combination,” he had added. “Our game’s improving under Tan, but we lack in consistency and experience and make mistakes at crucial junctures.” On Thursday, the duo undid that habit in closing out the opener.

In the last one year, Satwik-Chirag had gone three sets against top-ranked Mathias Boe-Carsten Mogensen — going down 24-22, 14-21, 14-21 in January at the Syed Modi championship in a 61 minute battle where they had led 9-4 in the second. The pair managed to upturn the decider result against the Taipese. While Satwik has been hammering them down in a no-holds-barred, Chirag’s was the missing link. “I used to go tap the shuttle, but opponents would suddenly change the pace and hit fast. I needed that mental stability to adjust to that pace,” he had said.

The Indians had lost 21-8, 21-12 in 32 minutes to the Japanese Endo-Watanabe at Glasgow in the Round of 64. They are up against Japan’s World No 4 Takeshi Kamura/Keigo Sonoda in the quarters, and how they handle the pressure against the elite pair will remain the next challenge.

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