It's only their first tournament of the year and Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy have already ticked one goal off their to-do list. The Indian men's doubles combine upset Danish fourth seeds Mads Conrad-Petersen & Mads Pieler Kolding on Friday to make the semifinals of the Indonesia Masters World Tour 500. "We had set ourselves the target of reaching a semifinal this year," Chirag, 20, tells ESPN, "But we didn't know that it would come so soon."
Moving into the senior circuit two years ago, they worked their way up from the anonymity of the 300s, pushing past the more experienced partnership of Manu Attri & Sumeeth Reddy, to lodge themselves as India's No 1 men's doubles pair last August. In Friday's quarterfinals, the unseeded Indians, currently ranked 32 in the world, were to reap the dividends of a dominating start.
"In the decider when we were trailing 12-16 we decided to play safe, just go for retrievals and allow them to make errors." The plan worked and Satwik-Chirag reeled off the next four points.
On Saturday, they will be up against the might of World No. 1 pair Marcus Fernaldi Gideon & Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo. They last faced each other in the first round of the Japan Open last year which the pocket-sized Indonesians, fondly called 'minions' by fans, went on to win after a close first game.
"Attack, attack, attack," says Chirag, "That's our biggest strength as a pair and that's what we'll stick to against them. I don't think I'd be exaggerating if I said that we have one of the best attacking games in the world. Similarly, our opponents (Marcus & Kevin) too have an attacking style and a buzzing energy at the net and the shuttles are also pretty fast here. So we have to beat them at what they do."
Announcing themselves with a win at the Tata Open International Challenge in 2016, Chirag/Satwiksairaj went on to win titles in Bangladesh and Mauritius, following it up with the Vietnam Open Challenge win last year.
With both having originally been back-court players, coming together in partnership has called for adjustments. Chirag, who stations himself in the forecourt and focuses on creating opportunities, has had to shoulder the larger part of it and credits doubles coach Tan Kim Her for the smooth switch. What has helped greatly through the transition is the camaraderie that the boys share. "I think Satwik is more calm and I'm the aggressive one. Being good friends off court keeps our on-court pairing ticking. No partnership can work without that bond. We have our meals together, go sightseeing and spend a lot of time with each other. Thanks to me, his Hindi has improved now. Earlier he wouldn't watch anything but Telugu movies."
Satwiksairaj too, was all praises for his partner. "I think the way he has been playing in this tournament is amazing. He's so confident that we can win and has improved a lot at service and net game. Over the past three months we've also turned into best friends and that's showing on court as well," he said.
Since both of them are still students, Chirag in his final year of college and Satwiksairaj in high school, sometimes tournaments have to be skipped to make room for studies. Chirag missed the Hong Kong Open last year, for instance, to appear for his exams and while his close circle of friends are aware of his progress in tournaments, the rest of his peers, he feels, couldn't care less.
"For most of the others, I'm probably the slugger who never shows up for class."