In the hours leading up to the final day of the Thailand Open World Tour 500, the Indian men's doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty know they are on the cusp of something special. Regardless of the result in the final, they will enter the top 10 in the world rankings. They are the first Indian doubles pair to reach the final of a World Tour 500 event - or Superseries as they were called until a couple of years ago. They've already beaten an Asian Games silver medal-winning side in the second round and a former world champion side in the semifinals. Now they could go one step further if they get past current world champions Li Jun Hui and Liu Yu Chen from China.
The two are not overthinking it. On Saturday night in his hotel room, following the three-game semifinal win against Korea's Ko Sung Hyun and Shin Baek Cheol, Chirag isn't obsessively watching videos of his upcoming opponents but rather, clips from the madcap Hindi comedy Hera Pheri.
It goes with their newfound mantra that's helped them get this far and might even get them to the top of the podium - keep calm. "We haven't been doing anything special. Our plan is to try and keep things as simple as possible. We will play an attacking game at the start but after the 15th point we are going to keep things as simple as possible. We are just sticking to the basics. Making sure we get our service and returns in and keeping the shuttle in play. There's no guarantee that we will win by staying calm but it increases our chances," says Chirag.
It's a relatively straightforward approach that's helped the young pair go from being promising talents with a penchant for suffering gallant close losses against higher-ranked opponents to ones who are now finishing on the winning side of the net.
"The more we play the more we see that the calmer you are at critical moments the better chance you have of coming out the winners" Satwiksairaj Rankireddy
As is often the case with such things, Chirag says the pair got their first lesson in the strategy through a loss. It came in the quarterfinal of the men's team event at the Asian Games last year. They were on the brink of pulling off a stunning upset against current world number one pair of Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon, having won the first game and leading 19-18 in the second. In the rally that could have given them a match point, Chirag grabbed at a marginal chance and ended up tapping into the net. The Indonesian pair seized the opening and forced and then won the decider.
"I made that mistake because I was rushing the point, instead of waiting for a clearer shot. Instead of making my opponent win the point, I gifted it to them," says Chirag.
The change has occurred slowly. "It's not something that happens overnight. It's taken the two of us to become more matured as well. It's an ongoing process. Every match is a learning experience. The more we play the more we see that the calmer you are at critical moments the better chance you have of coming out the winners," says Satwiksairaj. "We know our opponents are under so much pressure at that point. So they have a very good chance of making the mistake for us," he says.
What Chirag and Satwiksairaj mean by staying calm isn't just about avoiding outbursts of emotion on the court. "It's about being quieter but also about not rushing for strokes. We focus on getting the small things - the service or first return - rather than thinking of doing something cheeky," says Chirag.
This doesn't mean that the Indian's are playing negatively. After fighting off four game points but ultimately losing the second game in the semfinals, they steamrolled the Koreans 21-9 in the decider. "We are only careful towards the final stage of a game. We won't play loosely then. But at the start we are going to be as aggressive as we always have been." says Satwiksairaj.
Perhaps this approach might not have worked a year back when the tall Indians were lauded for their attacking flair but marked out as a team whose defense was vulnerable. But the Indians -- first under Tan Kim Her and subsequently under Indonesian Olympic bronze medallist Flandy Limpele -- have worked to bridge that gap.
"In the past we would lose half the points when we were defending. Now it's more like 70-30 in our favour," says Satwik. Their style - a distinctly Indonesian-inspired flat play has helped too. "It comes naturally to us, this style of game. We know we are still not the best defensively so we keep the shuttle low and try to avoid the lob-type game. But both of us are playing really well right now. So it doesn't matter if they smash or not. I tell Chirag you play your game at the net and don't worry about the back court. And I know that I can count on him to take care of the net. So both of us are very comfortable on the court now," says Satwik.
They will hope their opponents on Sunday will be less comfortable on court. The Chinese world number two pair have played the Indians before -- just two months ago at the Australian Open World Tour 300. Satwiksairaj and Chirag suffered a narrow 21-19, 21-18 loss. They believe that this encounter should end differently. The fact that the Chinese have a very similar playing style to their own with its accompanying advantages and disadvantages makes this a reasonably favourable matchup.
"The last time we played, Satwik was slowly making his return from his (sternum fracture) injury. And they also got lucky with a net cord on game point in the opening game. Their endgame is really strong but that's where we have improved as well. This time we are a lot more confident and we have the game to back it up too," says Chirag.