Interview with badminton doubles specialist Ashwini Ponnappa - "We've made a lot of progress in the last 10 years"
If you were to use the word ‘swashbuckling’ to describe an Indian badminton player, it would probably be her. She is one half of India’s most successful women’s doubles pairing in badminton. With a Commonwealth gold, a bronze at the Worlds and numerous other national titles, doubles specialist Ashwini Ponnappa is one of the most accomplished badminton players of the current generation. She, along with Jwala Gutta, made history when they won a bronze at the 2011 World Championships in women’s doubles, becoming the first women medallists from India at the event. They are also the defending champions at the Commonwealth Games having won the gold in Delhi in 2010. Those results led to her being presented with the Arjuna Award in 2012.
Known for her speed on court, composed competitive nature and hard smashes, Ashwini is quite the seasoned pro now and she has been one of the leaders in India’s rise in badminton on the doubles front. I caught up with Ashwini on the sidelines of her preparatory camp in New Delhi ahead of the Uber Cup, to chat up on her preparation, the big year ahead and her long-term goals.
You have been in Delhi for quite some time now as part of the preparatory camp. How’s the preparation been and how’s the mood in the camp heading into the Uber Cup?
The camp has been good so far and there is a good deal of optimism ahead of the tournament. Everyone is looking forward to do well and all geared up for the event. We’ve been here for 10 days now, and the fact that we have been away from home conditions, in a different environment, all by ourselves with just our teammates has been a challenging one.
It has helped us bond together and there is a great sense of unity in the camp. We are going for practice together, going out for a meal together and basically spending time in each other’s company. It has been very enjoyable and has helped build great team chemistry.
Also you will be playing at the Siri Fort Complex in Delhi, a venue where you have played a lot over the last year or so. Does that sense of familiarity give you an added boost?
Yes, we played matches in the IBL here, and we were here for the India Open. So we have a lot of match time under our belts here and hopefully the knowledge of the conditions will hold us in good stead going in.
Coming to your event specifically, the doubles with Jwala, how’s the build up to the event been?
We are feeling good and confident, especially on the back of the bronze that we won at the Asian Badminton Championships (ABC). We have been working on our game over the last couple of months to get better and we are feeling good about ourselves.
Last year was a very demanding year for you what with the change in partner that happened in the women’s doubles, before you got back with Jwala, not to forget plenty of off-court issues as well that were constantly stirring. It must be reassuring now that all that is in the past and there are no visible distractions?
Absolutely! When Jwala and me got back together, it was all about getting our game together again after the brief spell where we weren’t playing as a team. The issues that came about last year definitely didn’t help either of us, and it’s nice that we now have the opportunity to actually concentrate on our games and nothing else. There’s better focus, lesser distractions, and as you said, the constant attention of the media on those issues is something that we’re better off without.
There was another new event in the badminton calendar for you last year with the Indian Badminton League coming into the picture. And you were captain too of the Pune Pistons. How was it playing in this new concept and being in a leadership role in the team?
To be honest, I didn’t really consider myself to be the captain, and was not one in the conventional sense. We had a great team and plenty of senior players and experienced coaches in the squad. So they were always motivating us and constantly doing those little things in the background to keep the team going. It was more of a team effort and I must say that I had a great set of teammates and staff which made the experience a very enjoyable one.
You played mixed doubles with Joachim Fischer Nielsen at the IBL, one of the most experienced and successful doubles players around. Tell us a little bit about how that helped you.
Playing with Fischer was the best part of the IBL. He was very helpful, always willing to help me out with my game. He was, in fact, one of those senior players that I was talking about who was like a mentor to all the junior players, including me. He helped guide the team and having him as a teammate and specifically as a partner was one of the best experiences from the event.
Fischer actually in a recent interview, about a month ago, commented on the doubles scene in India and said that the Indian doubles teams are falling short tactically and in their reading of the game and that a Danish coach could help alleviate those problems. What’s your take on that?
Over the last few years, India has done really well in the singles field, as we have seen with Saina, Sindhu and Kashyap, and now Srikanth, coming through. On the doubles front, I think the game does require some more focus and there’s definitely some way to go for us. So, I wouldn’t disagree with him, we definitely can get better in terms of our tactical understanding of the game, but that can be done with any specialist doubles coach, not necessarily a Danish one.
The mentality needs to change when it comes to doubles. Unlike tennis, where almost all players start off in singles and then progress to doubles, it is very different in badminton. Here, right from the beginning, if you’re a doubles player, then you’re a specialist doubles player. It is not because you didn’t make the cut in singles that you became a doubles player, it doesn’t work like that. So that outlook needs to change.
That’s where getting in a proper specialist doubles coach helps. He/she can help us identify our areas for improvement and also go a long way in planning out our schedules, which will help us get more exposure as we play more opponents and tougher opponents. And after each match, can always help us with where we need to step up and he/she would also understand our requirements which are very different from those of singles players. Also change of tactics and elements like court positioning will all be addressed with that.
That will also motivate and encourage junior players and newbies looking to take up doubles in the knowledge that there is such a system in place.
2014 is a big year for badminton with the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games cropping up in the midst of an already packed schedule that includes the Uber Cup and Worlds. What are your thoughts going into such a big year?
I think one of the things that Jwala and me have focussed on is getting as much match practice as possible. Basically, the idea is that the more opportunities we get to play and the more varied opponents we get to play, we will be able to fine-tune and adjust our game that much better, so that we are fully prepared when it comes to the major tournaments.
After the Uber Cup, there are two more tournaments in between, before we do the Commonwealth Games. So, it’s going to be tough, but we’re looking forward to competing well in each of them.