Danish doubles coach Mathias Boe brings tactical nous to the table

Having retired last year, the 40-year-old Mathias Boe has jumped into coaching starting with India.

Danish doubles Olympic silver medalist Mathias Boe was appointed as India’s doubles coach on Friday after BAI’s MOC meeting. Having closely worked with Chirag Shetty in his home city of Mumbai, Boe will now assume responsibility of the entire doubles group and will be entrusted to help secure doubles titles on the circuit as also aim for an ambitious Olympic medal at Tokyo.

Boe had spoken to the Indian Express in November 2019, just as the Satwik-Chirag partnership was taking off and he was still playing, elaborating on challenges lying ahead for Indian doubles. Having retired last year, the 40-year-old has jumped into coaching starting with India.

Excerpts from interview:

Q. What part of Satwik – Chirag’s game is the most striking and helps them win?
A. Their attack. Especially when Satwik is at back court and Chirag is at net, they are really, really good and it’s very rare they don’t win their points when they are in that formation so both front and back…Satwik from back has one of the biggest smash in the world.. Chirag is also quite a tall player, so wide reach, and he is able to kill the shuttle at net. Their attacking game definitely makes them really dangerous

Q. What style do they best fit into?
A. There’s different tactics depending on where you are and what kind of skills you are brought up with. I’d say countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, they have extremely good technique. They can play strokes from court which they make look really, really simple but it’s extremely hard. Danes, European players are generally tactically better than Asians. Korea – normally physically stronger, they can run further, smash harder… depends on what kind of culture you brought up with, and what game suits you best. So it’s a little bit tough to answer… very complex… so you need to master a lot of aspects in the game besides physical.

Q. What does Satwik need to improve? What does Chirag need to improve?
A. They need consistency. They play a very high level when they play the best as we have seen actually in last few tournaments, really well in France Open. When their Plan A is running and Chirag can intercept at the net, and Satwik can kill from back, they are really strong. When they can play their 100 percent, they can challenge anybody. And that’s what we saw in France and Thailand – the event they won. And China where they did extremely well. But also, when their Play A is not running, their Plan B is something they still need to pick up a little bit and be more consistent when they cant play their 100 percent. That is what makes the difference in top pairings.

So you know, Kevin (Sanjay) and Marcus (Gideon) are No 1 ranked in the world. They can have bad days at the office. But somehow they are so consistent anyway, so they play bad but they can still challenge, and beat all the other pairs. That’s an extreme strength to have. And the pairs who can do that are the ones most likely to win the big events.

Q. What do you think about their defence?
A. Their defense is probably one of the weaker sides. (Nov 2019) Both are really tall players and it is a little bit difficult in the defense to bend your knees. It takes a lot of energy and power to just stand low and be able to move your feet quickly.

Whenever I practice with Chirag, it’s some of the things I keep telling him, that you are standing on two stiff legs, that you need to bend your knees and be more agile. And be more alert, and be ready to push forward. Of course it’s a little bit of disadvantage in defense. But it’s also, a cultural game style thing and the times I’ve practiced in Hyderabad it’s extremely humid and warm. And therefore it’s extremely difficult to practice your defense in there because you feel like it’s a tennis ball your opponents are smashing there. So maybe that’s why, when you have those shuttles it’s extremely difficult to control your defense. Atleast that’s how I experienced it. Whereas when you play in China, Denmark and some of the little bit colder places, then the game is a little bit slower and it helps the defense. But that’s something they need to improve.

Q. As a tall player (he’s 6’1″) just how challenging can defense be in doubles badminton?
A. Much more difficult when tall. Tougher for tall players to stand with bent knees and push off from there …and you need lot of muscles in your legs and be really strong. So that is ofcourse a challenge but if you ask a tall singles player also – Prannoy, Viktor Axelsen, some of these guys, they’d also say, it’s really hard to bend your knees a lot and its difficult.

Q. Against Gideon – Sukamuljo, what is needed to break that barrier?
A. They’ve never beaten them (it’s 0-8 now). Its difficult. They play a little bit the same strategy, Kevin and Marcus. They’ve got Kevin at the front court and Marcus at the back line, working and creating the game, so Kevin can kill it. Same goes with Chirag and Satwik. Right now, Kevin is just a tad better and when you are up against him, it’s relatively easy to look quite stupid on court because he can just do some things that you don’t expect him to do and that you can’t really practice daily. So you are not used to the sort of pressure he is putting on you. Kevin can be in front, controlling the court, and giving Marcus ideal conditions for him to hit hard smashes and put pressure on Chirag and Satwik. So it’s a combination.

The times I’ve beaten Kevin and Marcus is to have a more defensive style against them, make them work, make them a little tired and see if you can push forward a little and control the serve and receiving game and then eventually kill it. But is not an easy task. It sounds a lot easier than it actually is. So they definitely have the forces to be able to beat them and it’s just a matter of time and they can beat them once and maybe get the confidence to beat them more frequently.

Q. Can reaction times be improved incrementally? Or is it innate natural & some have it, some don’t?
A. We did one test in Denmark where we had things done on the computer which tested our reaction times. And ofcourse the measurements when it’s on the shuttle when it’s travelling is like you have 0.2 seconds to react, so ofcourse it’s something. It comes naturally, it runs in your nervous system, because we’ve done this from a very young age, we are used to the reflexes. And to be able to send a signal from our brain to our feet to be able to move quicker, and anticipate. And then you always have quite a good idea of where the shuttles are coming and what you need to be alert about. So it’s something that you can practice but it’s also something you have naturally and some are even born with it.

Q. Certain courts suit them better. But in very slow courts — what needs to improve in their game?
A. It’s difficult to say. It’s more about how you start the tournament. French Open (they made finals) is a little slower stadium, slower shuttles. That tournament was good for Chirag and Satwik. Thailand Open was a bit windy which was also good for them. So to say they have a specific arena they’d do better in, that I can’t really say. They have done good on different venues, temperatures, different air conditions… it’s more like, do you feel comfortable on court or not. Once you gain that victory, you feel, it’s not a problem. It’s drifting or drift comes from the side or I’m used to it. Or it doesn’t matter if the shuttles are slow, I feel comfortable in my defense and I still hit the shuttles very hard. At that level, atleast that’s how I feel. Sometimes you can do well in some arenas. In some cities, you can get to eat the fruit you want to eat, you like the hotel, etc. it’s these small things that can change it and give you momentum instead of making it an uphill battle.

Q. Should Satwik continue playing mixed doubles or focus on one event? (Ashwini-Satwik had done well in CWG in 2018, but not on the circuit. At Thailand, the pairing scored a few upsets and looked more formidable after recovering from injuries).
A. That’s upto Satwik himself and the coaches of India. My opinion is you shouldn’t play two disciplines. To be the best in mens doubles, or in mixed, you need to fully focus on that. It’s a bit of the same game, but its also still very different. So to be able to win in one of the events, I think, you need to focus 100 percent on it. One thing is that daily you only practice the things you need in your discipline. And the other thing is you come out and have two matches to play. Its too much, its too easy to pick up injuries. And also with the current schedule, you have about 20-25 big tournaments in the year that you are obligated to participate in, and playing two events is too much. That’s how I feel. But it’s pretty natural for young players. When I was Satwik’s age, I also played two events. Then I skipped it after few years, because I could also benefit from mixed doubles. I think I was ranked No 4 in the world when I was ranked best in Mixed many years back. So it’s definitely something that can help you. But you need to focus on one event, and when you feel the time is right, you take a call.

As far as I know, Satwik, because of his big smash has got a little bit of problem with his arm, and even at that young an age, it takes its toll on the body to play and practice two disciplines. But he is so good in both of them, so it is a pretty difficult choice for him. But yaeah, he needs to think about these things definitely.

Q. What improvements have you seen in Chirag since the first time you saw him play?
A. I’ve seen things in Chirag already from the first time I practiced with him 5-6 years ago. Seen him as a very big talent, and also a little bit under-rated in people’s mind. But not in mine, because I could see from the beginning, he had huge talent. Some of the things he does on court dosn’t look that difficult. But when you know how difficult it is to pull off these deception shots, to push forward, to be the creator and to be able to play accurate at the net and get initiative in attack. Maybe it looks more spectacular when Satwik is rising up in the air and killing the shuttle, but maybe it’s the shot before the big smash that is often created by Chirag and that is extremely difficult. He had the speed always, and he’s improved more. He’s extremely quick pushing forward to the net. And he’s got a nice good reach so he’s able to reach out and get the drives that are pushed back on him. And in general, just serving and receiving game has improved. His offence, deception at net, speed have improved last 5-6 years. With his speed, he can challenge a lot of front court players, the best Indonesians and the best Danes who are often better at that game. So he’s definitely on right track. As an athlete you can get better and better. If he keeps pushing himself, he can take the next step to the top.

Q. Doubles is all about speed and power. But your pairing with Mogensen had intelligent nuance to it. What goes through the mind when in middle of frantic rally & diving & scrambling?
A. My game is (was) not so super spectacular. It’s more like stable, and just very efficient. It’s not often that I fly around on court and do dives on court. That I’m too old for, and too stiff also. For me, it’s more like being the intelligent player. I’ve always wanted to win matches and tournaments on being tactically better. And better at reading the game than other players. So all the diving and spectacular things I’ve let my opponent do. A big dive has never been my style of the game. Ofcourse I like watching it, how spectacular and athletic some of the players are. But that’s just not me.

Q. Why did you pick doubles as a player – what do you enjoy the most about the paired event?
A. My physique was not good enough for singles. I was too slow, my muscles were not strong enough, my biggest talent is the ability to read the game and maybe be tactically one of the best players ever, if I can praise myself a bit. So it was pretty straightforward for me that I should play doubles. It’s a faster game, but physically you don’t have to run so much on court which definitely would not suit my game. And then I also find doubles more fun, it’s a faster game. And to work together with another person, you have somebody to celebrate your victories with. There’s a lot of advantages, lots of disadvantages too. But maybe if I’d played singles, I’d have reached Top 100 of the world and it was a no-brainer for me.

Q. How scientific and gadget measuring would you need Indian doubles to get better?
A. A lot of scientists were doing tests on us. Mostly singles players it’s important for them to get these measurements. Because doubles you don’t need that good a stamina. You need to be faster and more explosive.
Tests shouldn’t take away from what you need to focus on. It shouldn’t happen that you say, I’m not in that good a shape as I was when I won this tournament. As happens with (equating with) these tests.

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