Satwik-Chirag outgunned at the net in the Malaysian Open semifinals

India’s Malaysian jinx continued as Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty were outgunned easily at the net largely by China’s Wang Chang, supported by Liang Wei Keng, losing 21-16, 11-21, 21-15. Wang Chang, a three time Junior World Championships finalist, playing in only his tenth tournament together with Liang, is bound to be a big star in seniors in coming years, with the buzz of angled returns he creates at the net. But on Saturday, it was the Indians who often got circumspect in their attack and couldn’t use Liang’s weak link to their advantage against the Chinese, at the Axiata.

No Indian has made the Malaysian Open finals in 40 years – something that Satwik-Chirag could have overturned. But Wang would get stuck into them – hopping like a yo-yo crazy ball, accruing short drops and generally out-stroking and out-gimicking Chirag, finding gaps whenever he came bopping onto the forecourt.

The taller of the two, Wang relied on scanning the court for empty spaces, and then punched holes as the Indians leaked points, even if their attack was getting them a bunch.

It wasn’t just the Indian defense he poked holes into through precise placement. He also turned Chirag’s confidence porous, which was their undoing in the first and third sets.

In the opener, the Chinese broke away at 14-14, with Wang’s short pushes drawing Chirag into a one-on-one battle of the net. Micro-focussing on that duel – not that Wang left them with a choice – meant Wang would take a stride into the forecourt, pounce on any return hungrily, laser down his pushes and dictate the flow of play. The Indians were playing this pairing for the first time, and unacquainted with their style of play, had to get their basics right – instead they retreated into a ponderous shell.

Coach Mathias Boe’s hectoring after the Indians dropped the first set, seemed to be working. “Need to start moving, you must open up the game, you are showing them too much respect,” he would say. But Wang could absorb Liang’s errors and gobble everything thrown at him like a giant Wormhole in the space. Satwik stayed calm and his smashes earned the Indians points. But the slight reluctance to take the initiative remained, and Boe had to tell them to keep racquets at the ready and stay on their toes as they levelled sets to push a decider.

Defensively, both Indians had found a way to pop back low returns without lifting them. Though this Chinese pairing weren’t going for the big smashes much. They were in fact outplaying Indians on what is the Indian style of play – focussing on placements. Still, Chirag found his verve at the start of the third, and till 9-9 he picked a bunch of confident winners – at 7-8 an outrageous low defensive flick which went all the way to the backline, and forced Liang to dump the return into the net. But the fundamental lack of energy from the Indians, remained.

One reason why Wang was so difficult to parry back was his jump smashes from the front court – which made his mere striding into the fore half ominous. The aggression at the eyeball confrontation, literally rose in front of Chirag Shetty and smacked the shuttle back wherever he pleased. The Chinese pairing also seemed to be having fun, treating their errors with a jolly shrug and lots of smiling chit-chatting, even as the Indians put themselves under pressure as the lead went from 10-11 to 14-18 in the decider.

Liang, prone to errors, even got himself a stunning point at 15-19, with a drop from mid-court, with the tightest of curves grazing the net which gave him a lot of mirthful joy. It was this lightness on their feet, and an easy temperament in their minds that would see the Chinese culminate that lead into a win for their first Super 1000 final. Being underdogs helped the youngsters, though nobody who watched Wang rain down smashes from the forecourt would label them as underdogs – the Chinese came primed to win this semifinal.

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