On the night before the final of the Thailand Open, where he and his teammate Chirag Shetty became the first Indian doubles pair to win a BWF World Tour 500 tournament, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy wasn't looking at videos of their formidable world champion opponents Li Jun Hui and Liu Yu Chen from China. There was a rather more mundane chore to take care of first. His laundry.
Twelve pairs of T-shirts and shorts worth. "I'm someone who sweats a lot. So, I go through a lot of pairs of my kit. Sometimes it even gets difficult to find a pair to coordinate with my partner. I knew I wouldn't get time after the final because we had to rush to the airport, so I decided to wash my entire suitcase," says Satwiksairaj.
Laundry might not have been much of an issue for earlier Indian pairs since they weren't travelling too far into a tournament week. But having played a quarterfinal in Japan last week and now having created history on Sunday, it's a variable that Satwiksairaj will now have to plan in advance for. And that is a tradeoff that he and, by extension, his partner are more than willing to make.
It's not often that a player gets to create history, is it?
The mixed doubles pair of V Diju and Jwala Gutta made the final of the World Tour finals back in 2010 but big victories have been non-existent for Indian doubles teams. That meant doubles were not given anywhere near the support that singles badminton enjoyed. Few players turn to doubles of their own volition.
Satwiksairaj started playing doubles because there were two courts with quite a lot of players at his home in Amalapuram, Andhra Pradesh, and only switched to doubles at the Gopichand Academy because that was what the national coach believed the country needed. When coach Uday Pawar asked Chirag, a talented singles player with a state championship to his name, to specialise in doubles five years ago, he says it took him a couple of months to finally agree.
"This is a huge moment for doubles in India," says former national champion and current junior team's coach Arun Vishnu. "You have to remember the state that Indian singles was in before Saina Nehwal won her first Super Series title at Indonesia in 2009. After she started winning, we got another player in PV Sindhu and then results started coming in from the men too. That's how important Satwik and Chirag winning the Thailand Open is for doubles."
While naysayers might remark that a World Tour 500 isn't the same as a Super Series (there are 15 tournaments rated World Tour 500 and higher in contrast to 12 in the earlier Super Series format), the fact remains that nine of the world's top 10 men's doubles teams were playing in Bangkok. En route to the title, Satwiksairaj and Chirag beat the Asian Games silver medallists, the former world champions and the defending world champions. By any metric, this was a monumental achievement.
"This was something you dream about when you start playing badminton. When you learn about players like Matthias Boe, Markus Kido and Mohammad Ahsan, you hope to see yourself play at the same tournaments as they do. It doesn't even occur to you that you can also win it," says Chirag.
Now not only have they won at that level, as Satwik scrolls through the congratulatory messages on his phone, he will also see one from Kido -- the 2008 Olympic men's doubles champion.
There's much that has stood out in their performance this tournament.
Chirag's net play has been assured and Satwiksairaj has brought in deceptive variation to his normally thunderous smash play from the back of the court. "It's something he has been working on over the last few months. Opponents expect him to hit these heavy smashes, but he is mixing it up with half-smashes and drops that's very confusing for his opponents," says Vishnu.
There's the improved physical fitness as well -- their final, which followed an hour-long semi-final, was an hour and 13 minutes long and was played with no discernible loss of speed and zip. That has been brought in courtesy new doubles coach Flandy Limpele.
The Indonesian, a former Olympic bronze medallist himself, wasn't always the most popular character for the duo. "He was like that teacher that teenagers hate because he makes students work so hard. Satwik used to complain like anything [about] how much his body is aching and paining. But as he has been playing he has understood just how much it has helped him. He was telling me just how fresh he was feeling in Thailand," says Satwiksairaj's brother Charan.
But what has really stood out has been the duo's calmness in pressure situations. "That's the most important thing we have learned from this last tournament," says Chirag. "We haven't panicked in critical situations. We might have lost points but we have kept our cool and focus. We weren't always doing that earlier."
That was key during the second game when, having held an 18-16 lead, the Indians saw the Chinese raise their game and reel out five straight points to force the decider. The Indians had been desperate to keep their opponents to two games with Satwik feeling stiffness around his shoulder and Chirag unease around his abdominals and forearm. Instead, they simply got on with the match. "We might have broken down after that period in the past. But this time we were immediately focusing on the next game," says Chirag.
That, says Satwiksairaj, was him channelling his inner Roger Federer. "He's the sort of player I'm trying to be," he had told ESPN a day before the final. "He doesn't react to his shot. Everything is treated calmly. He's always positive, the point itself doesn't matter. Even after hitting a bad shot also he won't go, 'Tch!' That's the sort of mentality I hope to have too."
He hopes to get closer to that in the tournaments to come, with a particular focus on the World Championships this month. The pair's target for the Olympic season had been to win a tournament on the World Tour and, having checked that off their list, they have now set their sights on a medal at the Worlds. There will be a month of preparation for that, but there's at least one thing Satwiksairaj knows he must do. "I need to pack more of my playing kit next time," he jokes.