What Chirag Shetty can learn about net game from Leander Paes and Jwala Gutta

One part narcissism, two parts threat and a healthy dose of devilish care. They warn you against everyone in life. But it’s the recipe for turning the well-mannered double-shuttle Shetty into a bit of a winning machine.

No one is asking Shetty to go from a front-bencher to a wannabe bad-behaving bad guy. It’s just some focused shuttle hogging and pounce that’s recommended. Because manning the net requires a certain personality, especially if you didn’t grow up in Indonesia or Malaysia where the brutality starts coursing through your veins as you combine skills with much superior seniors.

India has no precedent for Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Shetty in men’s doubles, they are the first bona fide prototype. That’s one reason why Shetty, the playmaker, needs to put on a confident garb and start loving his own wrist game. It’s not about mindlessly hacking at the bird, but getting in line with the shuttle and hitting it early, which is a combination of anticipation and footwork.

Above all, it remains sharp, ready to be mobile in both lateral direction and vertical dimension. He also doesn’t have to fear the shuttle flying at him or get a brain freeze, as coach Mathias Boe has been audibly screaming all season long.

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty were the first Indian doubles pair to win a BWF Super 750 tournament. (Source: BAI Media/Twitter)

By all accounts, it was a successful breakthrough season for the Indian duo, with Thomas Cup and Commonwealth Games titles, tour victories in Delhi and Paris, and the first World Cup medal, a bronze. A top 5 peak is imminent. But the pair aren’t exactly the talk of the town just yet, nor are they seen as contenders at the Paris Games. They have a win-loss head-to-head of 11-0 against Indonesian ‘Minions’ Kevin-Marcus and 7-0 against Malaysian world champion Chia – Soh.

Two Indians reigned supreme in tennis and badminton – and didn’t exactly fit the checklist of commonalities seen in those positions. Leander Paes was not tall or powerful. Jwala Gutta was not the fastest on her feet like Japanese or Chinese. But both had great hands and a laser eye for noticing, processing and pounce on the opponent’s weaknesses.

Shetty is lacking in none of these, though he has had to work hard on each one as he started out as a backcourt player with a penchant for knocking down smashes. Also long and therefore forced to learn to bend and crouch. However, it’s not the skill that he will lack – at least he works twice as hard. It’s the attitude: one part narcissism, two parts menace; none of it was considered negative in sports.

Dr. Vece Paes recalled what the great tennis coach Tony Roche had noticed when trying to understand Leander’s effectiveness on court and had said: “The perception that Leander and his reflexes are fast, Tony had said, is because he is trying his hardest to challenge opponents who are at the net.”

Chirag and Stawik India’s Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, center, and Chirag Shetty celebrate after winning their men’s doubles quarterfinal badminton match against Japan’s Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi at the BWF World Championships in Tokyo. (AP | PTI)

A bit of a begrudging compliment, as Roche tried to gently guide him from singles to doubles, Roche actually highlighted what was at the heart of Paes’ staggeringly successful doubles that marked him as a leader in all of his 100 partnerships.

Shetty will have to reach that skill level to buy his own invincibility, if he’s to avoid those matches where Boe rips him apart for being relaxed and generally lax.

It’s not about sharpness of strokes or smart serve, but about internalizing that instinct that the forecourt is his kingdom and he’s the ruler.

Jwala Gutta once explained, “When Arif Sir spoke, I always took his instructions very literally. So when he said ‘as soon as the shuttle crosses the net, it’s yours’, I went after it like my life depended on it.”

It’s what turns badminton into a boxing ring – that combativeness demanded of those at the net, who go from sentry to outright snipers. Doubles turns into a near-contact sport when the bird crosses the divider at high speeds that can push you backward like a hammer hammering a nail. Still, you need to keep taking that assertive lunge forward to attack the shuttle for your own bodyline barrage. It’s like being caught in a storm at full throttle.

Constantly being in that busy line of fire also requires an imperturbable temperament. It’s where the somewhat overthinking Shetty needs to relax a bit.

Jwala, by far India’s best doubles shuttlecock, before Satwik-Chirag was one step ahead of her in Tour wins, would happily say, “I never worry. I take less pressure. I am the creator, who sets up partners for the murders. I have two opponents to take care of.” There was also a bit of white knight syndrome there: “Every split second matters, I know if I go wrong, partners will be helpless.”

Far too often indecisiveness or nerves at crucial moments, against the Malaysians and Indonesians, have tripped Shetty, who sets the pace of the game, rather than challenging opponents at close range.

Jaseel Ismail, one of India’s top practitioners of previous generation doubles, wants Shetty to take the initiative and not sit back and disturb the opponents. He thinks it’s a game of confidence – one good game at the top level will bring more wins and take them to the Top 5 and compete for the Olympic medal.

Satwik brings the mic drop smashes and firepower plus the surprising trickery and composure to this pair. Still, it’s Shetty who will have to do the heavy lifting – literally, and slip into the net roll. There is room to be creative, which suits his ingenuity and intelligence.

But the net requires an outgoing attitude or at least someone who indulges for a good scrap. “I like to face the attack first and I’m good at making decisions,” Jwala used to say.

The studious Shetty, who compulsively googles everything he sees and is voracious in learning new things, will have to get into a fight. India’s next medal might just depend on him taking the fighting challenge to pull off a full diva turn.

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