Lucknow: For Chirag Shetty, the Premier Badminton League 2020 (PBL) will occupy a special place in his heart, as it has provided him the opportunity to play men's doubles with his idol, Indonesian great Hendra Setiawan.
"I saw him win gold at the 2008 Olympics and now I'm playing with him. It's funny how life pans out," said the 22-year-old Shetty, after he and Setiawan won the first match of the tie to get their team Pune 7 Aces off to a winning start against Mumbai Rockets.
It wasn't smooth sailing though.
Up against two-time World Championship bronze-medallists Kim Gi Jung and Kim Sa Rung of South Korea, the experimental pairing of Shetty and Setiawan didn't gel immediately.
Shetty would swipe his racquet at the shuttle but find the net, repeatedly in the first game. The tension was palpable and Shetty's anguished expressions told the story. Moreover, with each miss, Shetty would try a bit more, rush needlessly and commit errors.
His partner though, Hendra Setiawan, never lost his composure, becoming of the experience garnered from playing on the World Tour for over 14 years.
Chirag Shetty, India's best hope for the Tokyo Olympics in doubles badminton, won the first match of the tie for Pune 7 Aces
The duo lost the first game 14-15 as Shetty had a hard time coping with his rampaging opponents.
However, the second game onwards, Shetty found his footing, and aided by the instinctive Setiawan, went for his winners, landing them with minimal fuss.
He could do so for Setiawan had taken the position closer to the net, manning it effortlessly and drawing out high-lifts from his opponents. It allowed Chirag to close out the rallies with searing smashes from the back of the court.
The Pune pair recovered from their first-game loss spectacularly, winning the next two 15-5 and 15-6, and the match 2-1, procuring the first points for their team.
The Pune team went on to win their first tie of the season comfortably with a 5-2 score, against the Mumbai side.
Post the tie, Shetty opened up on the learnings that come from playing alongside a four-time world champion in Setiawan. "It's amazing how instinctive and aware he is. He doesn't even have to move much because he anticipates his opponents' shot-making so well."
"Also, the calmness that he has on the court is remarkable. It's something that comes from experience," said Shetty, who's ranked No 10 in the men's doubles division of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings.
Shetty's name came to the fore last year when partnering Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, the duo won the Thailand Open Super 500 tournament.
With that momentous win, the Shetty-Rankireddy pairing became the first from India to win a Super 500 tournament in men's doubles.
Shetty had a fair assessment of the reasons for that achievement.
"Satwik and I are always working hard on our fitness and that has helped us tremendously."
"Last year, we played daily, till the last day of the competition, at Thailand and French Open tournaments, but never felt tired," said Shetty, referring to the duo's run to the finals at the French Open Super 750 tournament, after their Thailand Open win in August last year.
Their performances in 2019 had them break into the top 10 of the world rankings for the first time in their careers, also improving their chances of qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
However, the duo has since suffered first-round exits at four successive tournaments.
Shetty didn't attribute the same to a perceived slump in form or tiredness brought on by a packed BWF calendar.
"At the highest level, it's not easy to perform consistently as the men's doubles division is very competitive where there are no favourites."
"In the two tournaments we have played this year, the matches were very close, decided over three games and it could have gone either way," said Shetty. "It's all about who can keep calm in the crunch moments and we continue to work on that."
Asked about the state of doubles badminton in the country, Shetty said that the game is evolving and some fresh talent is being unearthed. "We have dedicated coaches now and players are getting a lot of exposure to the best practices in doubles badminton."
Although, reasons for speculation abound.
Recently, India's doubles badminton coach, Indonesian Flandy Limpele lamented that his wards weren't very receptive to his ideas. Limpele also said that he was having a hard time dealing with the Indian shuttlers' attitudes.
When asked about the same, Shetty conceded that in India, focus on individual growth among players tends to become a barrier in achieving success as pairs. "Some players might have ego issues. They might think that they are being overshadowed by their partner and that never helps.
"One has to know that doubles badminton is a team sport and you can only be as good as your partner. On a good day, your doubles partner can help you overcome the weak links in your game."
"That can only happen if both players are on the same page."
So how does Shetty work past those issues with his men's doubles partner Rankireddy?
"Satwik and I are great friends off the court and share a great rapport. When travelling for tournaments, we even share the same room and ensure that we have at least one meal together every day."
On the opening day of the Luckow leg of PBL 2020, it was evident that ego wasn't an issue with Chirag Shetty.
The 22-year-old was drunk with delight when seeing his teammates rack up the points for Pune.
While watching the matches from the team dugout, Shetty would be the first one to initiate the "Let's go Pune!" cheers, also egging the dholwalas in the stands to drum up support.
When asked why he chooses to play in the PBL, Shetty was his happiest self. "This is an amazing opportunity for us. To pick the brains of some of the best players in the world."
"For me, this season, I'll get to learn from Hendra, who's world no 2 in men's doubles. It helps me imbibe different tactics and improve my game."
"Most of all, it's a breather from the intense competition at the BWF World Tour events. Everyone is here to just play and learn and there's no pressure."