With two first-round losses in as many tournaments, men's doubles player Chirag Shetty might not have got his international badminton season off to a great start this year, but he's doing all right for himself in the Premier Badminton League (PBL). The 21-year-old has won three straight matches -- including one against two-time world bronze medallists Kim Sa-rang and Kim Gi Jung -- but what's particularly special for him is the guy he's sharing one side of the court with. While his usual partner has been Satwik Rankireddy, for the duration of this tournament he has paired up alongside Indonesian great Hendra Setiawan.
"There's so much to learn when you are playing alongside a player of that stature," Chirag says of his partnership with the three-time world championship gold medallist Setiawan -- one half of the Indonesian pair known as the 'Daddies' for their longevity and success. "He's just so calm in everything he does. Most of the time, I'm just observing him because usually I'm watching him from the other side of the net," says Chirag who, partnering Satwik, has played against Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan three times in international competition -- losing twice, including the last international match before the PBL.
Beyond the novelty of playing alongside the world number 2, Chirag views the partnership as an opportunity to improve his own game further. "Throughout the year, I'm used to playing a similar sort of style with Satwik," says Chirag. "We have a very attacking game with a lot of dribbles and forcing lifts so we can attack more. I'm usually playing at the front of the court. But with Setiawan, I have to play a different type of game that helps me improve as a player. With him our game is as low as possible. We play a lot of flat rallies with a lot of rushes to the net. As someone who usually plays on the front court with Satwik, that forces me to adapt because here I'm mostly hitting from the back."
He has made an impression on the Indonesian already. "He keeps asking me questions, especially about playing in the front court and around the net," says Setiawan. "We talk a lot about badminton whenever we are training together. I believe that is the best thing about him." Indeed, Setiawan expects big things once the PBL ends and Chirag resumes his usual pairing with Satwik. "They are really good players and performing well," he says. "They already have one championship [in Thailand last year] and I think they will become much better in a year or two."
Chirag hopes the improvement won't have to wait so long, considering the Olympics are just a half year away. While the Olympic qualification period ends only on April 30, the Indian pair, currently ranked eighth in terms of points in the qualification period, are almost certainly going to make the cut for Tokyo.
But Chirag isn't resting any time soon. "Our primary target is to qualify," he says. "But me and Satwik have to do more. We have to work a lot more on our fitness. We need to get a lot more practice sessions under our belt."
And while there are questions just where the PBL features in their Olympic plan, considering it doesn't provide any ranking points and prevents them from competing on the World Tour which does, Chirag believes the league fits in the scheme of things. "If we had been playing the league last year, when we had to travel every three or four days between five cities, it would have been too hectic and taken a physical toll on us," says Chirag. "But we are only travelling to three cities this time. There's a lot of time to train and we are also able to practise alongside really high-quality partners, which will help out in the future."
Indeed, despite the poor start to the year, Chirag is confident that things will turn around soon for him and Satwik. "I'm not too worried about the two matches we lost," says Chirag. "Both our matches were close [they lost in three games at the Malaysia Masters and held a game point in the opening set against Setiawan and Ahsan at the Indonesia Masters]. Things could have been different with better shot selection. But it needs just one good game to turn things around."