The men's doubles pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy will always have fond memories of Paris' Stade Pierre de Coubertin. The pair have played three editions of the French Open World Tour Super 750 tournament here and always had something to show for it. They reached their first-ever World Tour Super 750 quarterfinal in 2017 and then went one step further, reaching the semifinals last year. This year, Satwiksairaj (19), and Chirag (22), are in the quarterfinals once again. They've done so whilst picking up the biggest-ever scalps of their career - beating Indonesia's Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan 21-18, 18-21, 21-13 on Thursday.
Current world number 2 and former world number 1, Ahsan and Setiawan are one of the greatest-ever pairings in badminton men's doubles history. Setiawan is a gold medalist at the 2008 Olympics (with Markis Kido) but has won three World Championships gold medals with the 32-year-old Ahsan too. They are a venerable pair - Setiawan is 35 and Ahsan 32 - but more than capable of mixing it up with the current generation, as their All England and World Championships titles this year would suggest. Their nickname from back home in Indonesia - the Daddies - is apt.
Yet, considering just how big the win was, neither Satwiksairaj nor Chirag celebrated particularly enthusiastically. They haven't got too many congratulatory calls from coaches either. Post the match, they simply headed back to their hotel rooms, showered, grabbed dinner and began preparing for their quarterfinal. Contrast this to 2017, when they reached the quarterfinals by beating then world number 6 pair of Mads Pieler Kolding and Mads Conrad-Petersen. "That time we fell on the floor because of how excited we were. This time we hardly celebrated," says Chirag.
This is the new normal. "You celebrate when you have done something you didn't expect to be doing. But we are not so far from this (elite) level. We are at par with the best teams in the world now," says Chirag.
That confidence, he says, has been building up steadily over the past couple of years as they grew more consistent with their results. The turning point, though, came a couple of months ago after winning the Thailand Open - the first ever World Tour 500/Super Series win by an Indian doubles pair - with a win over 2018 World Champions Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen. The Indians had moved to a career-high World Ranking of 9 after that win.
And while that ranking slipped (they are currently WR11 after dropping to 15) after they both picked up injuries and had to drop out of the World Championships in August, that self belief isn't going anywhere.
It's stayed put even after a couple of early-round losses to the world number 4 pair of Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda at the China and Korea Open and even after a difficult time at the Denmark Open, caused by illness to Satwiksairaj. "I got a bad viral fever just after I came to Denmark. I had to give a walkover in my mixed doubles match, hoping that I would recover in time for my men's doubles match. But I was barely standing in that game. I thought maybe if I just took the court I would find some josh (enthusiasm) but I was probably playing at 10 percent in that match," recalls Satwiksairaj.
He was still recovering in Paris and admits being short of breath and struggling with long rallies in his opening doubles match. "That was frustrating because after missing out on the World Championships, I had been putting so much work into training. Coach Flandy Limpele had been working on my stamina and I was not able to make it count in Denmark," says Satwiksairaj.
As his viral fever cleared, Satwiksairaj has slowly managed to find a fifth gear. That was particularly crucial against the Indonesian pair. "We know they aren't the fastest on court but their reactions are still very sharp. So we can't let them get to the net before we do. Our strategy against them was to make sure we were able to catch the shuttle first and dictate the net game. In the past, we would sometimes be a little loose in the last game, but this time we were pushing hard right until the last point," says Chirag.
After beating the Indonesian pair, the Indians face world number 8 Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen for a place in the semifinals. They have a 0-2 record against them, although Chirag did manage to beat them at the Swiss Open while partnering Pranaav Jerry Chopra, when Satwiksairaj was injured at the start of this year.
The Danes have an exceptional retrieving game that Satwiksairaj, in particular, hates. "I'll hit 1000 smashes against them and maybe one will get through," he jokes. But the Indians are also confident that they have more than a decent chance of getting their first win against them. "We won't be satisfied if we play well and lose. We are going there to win now," says Chirag.
Don't count on a big celebration, if they do though. "The best teams in the world don't celebrate winning a normal match. That should be how we react too. The only time we will really celebrate will be if we win in the final," he says.