Commonwealth Games 2018: A squad full of stars, and yet, Gold Coast belonged to Ashwini Ponnappa
So much was her influence that even Pullela Gopichand heaped praise on her.
The Indian badminton contingent created history at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games as they bagged six medals (two gold, three silver and one bronze) overall and finished as the most successful country in the discipline.
Of course, everyone expected the contingent to return with a rich haul of medals. Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth were all expected to bag medals in their individual events while Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty were favourites to make it to the finals in men's doubles.
Apart from these four medals, though, two more medals were added to the kitty, courtesy of the senior most pro in the team -- Red Bull athlete Ashwini Ponnappa.
One, of course, was the historic gold medal win in the team event where Malaysia were firm favourites. And the other was the women's doubles bronze alongside the young N Sikki Reddy.
So much was her impact that even Pullela Gopichand heaped praise on her after Satwik and Chirag wrapped up the proceedings in Gold Coast. "I think for me, this tournament belongs to Ashwini. Satwik and Ashwini could have ended up with a medal. The win in the team championship was very critical to put the team 1-0 up and give the confidence to Srikanth to beat Lee Chong Wei," he said.
Coming to mixed team event final, it was expected of Saina to win her match. Okay, maybe, there was also a possibility of Srikanth pipping former World No.1 Lee Chong Wei. But to win the final, one more win was required. All the pundits and experts had already put their money on a victory for the Malaysians.
After all, the rest of the three rubbers would be doubles and for years, India have been suffering defeats against the top sides in Mixed Team Championships due to the lack of depth in the doubles competitions. Going by statistics, who would bet on India?
The first rubber would pin Ponnappa and the young Satwik against Peng Soon Chan and Liu Ying Goh, a pair who have attained much success together including a silver medal at the Rio Olympics. Moreover, the Carrara Sports Arena was filled with a boisterous Malaysian crowd who were constantly making it clear who the favourites were.
The odds were stacked up against the Indian duo.
But on the court, once the match started, it was becoming more and more evident that neither Ponnappa nor Satwik would give up without a fight.
Satwik's powerful smashes and Ponnappa's cheeky net play got the desired result in the first game. In the second, though, the Malaysians showed why they were the Rio Olympic silver medallists. But the real miracle happened in the third game.
Trailing 7-11 at a point, Ponnappa and Satwik held their own to forge a terrific comeback and give India the much-needed momentum. It was an unbelievable win, almost unprecedented.
But for Ponnappa, there wasn't a single moment when she did not believe that it was impossible. "I guess we really believed we could do it. Most importantly, we didn’t give up until the end," she told Sportskeeda from Gold Coast later on.
On being asked how the duo held their nerve in those moments of intense pressure, she said, "We kept telling each other what to focus on, in terms of shots to play or which shot to be ready for. That helped keep us focused on the point at hand and not think too far."
Speaking about the superb win, Ponnappa revealed how excited everyone was. However, she did add the celebrations were cut short as the individual events would start the very next day. "We were all very excited and happy! Thrilled, in fact, as we had created history by being the first team to win the gold for India in the badminton mixed team event. All of us were excited and happy a part of the team that did it. However, there weren't too many celebrations as we had to get ready for our individuals which were starting the next day," the 28-year-old said.
She further added, "The victory, of course, was very special. It always feels great to be a part of creating history for India. We knew Malaysia was a tough opponent to beat. But luckily, our entire team was strong and filled with a lot of positivity. Gopi Sir, Tan Coach, the other coaches, physios were extremely supportive and encouraging and really helped the team to get prepared mentally and physically. Having an overall strong team, from players, coaches to support staff definitely helped."
She might have missed out on adding another medal to her name when she lost the bronze medal match alongside Satwik in the Mixed Doubles event on Saturday -- which was, of course, her fourth match of the day -- but in truth, in a squad full of stars, nobody did it like Ashwini Ponnappa.