Worries can sneak through sports bubbles. India’s top men’s doubles shuttler, Chirag Shetty realised it was futile to shut away grief. COVID-19 hit home when he lost his maternal grandfather while he was on a four-day break in Mumbai, his home city ravaged by the pandemic.
“It was a difficult time. My younger uncle got it, then my grandfather contracted it and was in the hospital. When he passed away, everyone else who was staying with him had been infected and couldn’t even attend the funeral,” said Shetty, now back in Hyderabad. “Another elder, a close relation, had passed away last month. You realised the virus had started hitting your family. It’s been difficult.”
Preparing for the Olympics next to Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who went through a challenging recuperation of his own in the first wave, is a small relief.
“Athletes also face the same anxiety as everyone. The uncertainty about the health of people in the family is constant,” he says, adding that one can’t pretend this is like any other run-up to a big tournament – this will be their first Olympics.
“We talk amongst ourselves and with coaches about the situation, nothing is bottled up,” he says, hopeful that the lockdown back home can stem the tide at least a little.
“Around Jan-Feb we got complacent about masks, and then it hit. Even now, everyone doesn’t (mask up), which is so dangerous. Except for when I’m on the court, I’m always masked if not in the room alone,” he says. “You can’t be blind to the fact that cases almost doubled in the last 10 days. It helps to be aware of reality.”
There have been scares around him too.
“Three-four (cases) at the academy. If you are not careful, you automatically become a close contact. So the worries are always there,” he says.
It also means that prior to Olympics and even the India Open, where the pairing will aim for a Super 500 title, as well as their own vaccination, there are other countdowns to patiently complete: “My grandmother and father have gotten their first dose. Now tomorrow my mother will get it hopefully. That’ll be a relief.”
Tiding over the last one year — the endless lockdown, the bunch of eventful tournaments for Indians in Thailand and Europe and now the whiplash second wave — have helped Shetty put badminton into perspective. The pairing was hitting the high notes – young and bouncing with energy and the promise of great wins – when the virus struck.
“Earlier we played badminton only with the goal of a competition. But on the first day in the earlier lockdown when we were allowed to train, I realised I love the game so much and how lucky we are to be able to play when a lot of people were not even allowed to leave their homes. I guess everyone has been forced to grow up and mature faster and think beyond just our bubbles,” says the 23-year-old
On court challenge for Satwik
Shaken out of their boisterous comfort zone where essentially Satwik played a power-packed attacking game, set up for the kills by Chirag, the Tokyo-bound pairing has widened their tactical options. It was under the Malaysian and Indonesian coaches that the Indians started using shuttle placement as a counter to the speedier Indonesians, tall Chinese, and clever Japanese and Taiwanese. But under Danish Mathias Boe, the two are firming up their Plan B.
“Go for shots in the middle and get proper clarity on Plan B,” Satwik told the media at a SAI-facilitated interaction. It is not just that other pairings are far more experienced – “Hendra-Setiawan started playing when I was born,” Satwik joked – but also that the countdown seems to have bolstered the defenses of opponents. Satwik’s big smash – one of the biggest on the circuit – is getting retrieved more often.
So Boe who was anyways expanding their minds to the sturdier cerebral European way of parrying pace, is now helping them mix things up not just on where the shuttle lands but on how the duo rotate. “We are at a level where we can play both Asian and European styles,” Satwik sought to assure.
Where the invisible support staff come into the picture is preparing Satwik for that kind of rigour. It started soon after he returned to training in Hyderabad after a month-long home quarantine after contracting the virus.
“For a month I couldn’t leave the room. I was very disturbed,” he recalls, plus 5 kg heavier.
This meant he was eased back into badminton with a boot camp of strengthening, starved of what he loves most – on-court attacking while watching opponents scramble to pick his monstrous smash.
“For two months there was no on-court training so it was demotivating,” Satwik, 21, says, adding that he stewed over it being the Olympic season even as he was being fundamentally refitted to last the high intensity training and game that would follow.
Not sure if he’s at 80 or 100 percent yet, Satwik is beginning to see the results of that solid base of conditioning. The Indian game will be more evolved as all the focus is now on on-court drills (train-till-you-drop level of intense) than just slam bang squirting of adrenaline.
While they would’ve waded into Tokyo 2020 brimming with implacable confidence of youth, the COVID-19 enforced postponement and a sobering confronting of reality all around the virus has meant they approach Tokyo 2021 with tempered expectations. And a much-needed Plan B.