It had exactly been a year since Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy had paired to play a competitive match. The pandemic hit their plans, halted their progress and separated them in different cities for months.
Having got back together in late October, the world No.10 men’s doubles pair commenced training at the national camp in Hyderabad, eagerly looking forward to the restart of the badminton circuit. And when the draw was out for the $1 million Yonex Thailand Open, the duo realised it would be facing childhood idol Lee Yong-dae and his partner Kim Gi-jung in the first round in Bangkok.
Shetty and Rankireddy were aged 11 and eight when the South Korean doubles legend won the mixed gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, following it up with a men’s bronze at London 2012. He went on to win six more World Championship medals.
The admiration had to be set aside on Tuesday as they were facing the daunting task of defeating the South Korean greats. Faltering at the start, the Indian duo fought back to win 19-21, 21-16, 21-14 in 68 minutes.
“Lee Yong-dae was an idol for us when we started; we used to love his game, so it was excellent playing him today,” said Rankireddy. “We are really happy to get the win because we are playing a tournament after one year. Pretty happy to be back on court and playing a high-level tournament.”
The last year has been tough for Rankireddy and Shetty. Forced to train within the confines of their homes during lockdown, the pair didn’t even join the national camp in August after a couple of players tested Covid-19 positive. While Rankireddy got some court time post the lockdown at home in Amalapuram, Shetty could not even access that as multi-sport facilities remained shut in Mumbai. It got worse when Rankireddy tested positive and had to be isolated for a month.
“We didn’t play last year, so that spirit, that fire, the hunger is there inside. We are doing well in practice and heading into the Olympics we want to see what the other players have worked on during the last few months,” said Rankireddy, 20.
For the 23-year-old Shetty, observing and learning from fellow net player Lee Yong-dae was the key. “Lee at the net is really good, one of the best. Although he’s not at his prime right now, he’s pretty lethal,” he said. “The strategy was to keep attacking as much as possible and not hurry. In the first game we gave away easy points as we were in a bit of a hurry but by the second and third games, we calmed down and knew what to do to get points. That really helped us.”
The Indian duo faces a more difficult task as it takes on Indonesian second seeds and world champions Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan next.
All other Indian pairs—MR Arjun and Dhruv Kapila, Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy (both men), and Sumeeth and N Sikki Reddy (mixed)—lost on Tuesday.
In singles, despite the quarantine ordeal she underwent on Tuesday, Olympic bronze medallist Saina Nehwal refocused her energies to beat Malaysian Kisona Selvaduray 21-15, 21-15. She will face local player Busanan Ongbamrungphan next.
Former world No.1 Kidambi Srikanth too progressed to the second round after beating compatriot Sourabh Verma 21-12, 21-11 in 31 minutes. He will next face Malaysian eighth seed Lee Zii Jia, who defeated HS Prannoy 13-21, 21-14, 21-8.
Sameer Verma too lost, 15-21, 17-21 to Indonesia’s Shesar Hiren Rhustavito, while Parupalli Kashyap retired due to a calf muscle issue while trailing 9-21, 21-13, 8-14 against Canadian Jason Anthony Ho-Shue.