Resurgent Jwala-Ashwini the real force behind India's Uber Cup milestone
India’s historic bronze at the prestigious Uber Cup has reinforced the nation’s status as an emerging badminton powerhouse. Sadly though, despite the tournament being held in New Delhi, Indian TV media barely covered it (choosing instead to focus on the scam-ridden IPL) and when they finally did, most of the headlines read like: Saina, Sindhu lead India to top Uber Cup group or Saina Nehwal’s heroics script Uber Cup history. Just like in the past, Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa’s giant-killing spree once again went unnoticed and was taken for granted.
Currently ranked 36 in doubles, the 2014 Asian Championships bronze medallists had to face much higher ranked opponents in most of their matches and they delivered with aplomb. In the Group stage, against the World No. 12 Thai pair of Aroonkesoron/Amitrapai, Jwala/Ashwini hardly broke a sweat, thrashing their fancied rivals 21-16 21-13.
It’s not that I am belittling the gritty performances of Saina Nehwal or P V Sindhu, but in singles India were clearly the favourites except maybe against Thailand who were led by the injured World Champion Ratchanok Intanon.
In the quarter-final against Indonesia, Gutta/Ponnappa once again played out of their skins to upset the World No. 9 team of Greysia Polii/Nitya Krishinda Maheswari 21-18 21-18. The win took India to the semis for the first time in Uber Cup history and assured them of a bronze medal.
In the semis, the huge gulf in the rankings proved to be too much as the 2010 CWG gold medallists finally ran out of steam against the World No. 4 Japanese pair of Ayaka Takahashi/Misaki Matsutomo, but not before staging a brilliant fight-back in the second game, falling 12-21 22-20 16-21.
Not everyone took their performance for granted though. Pullela Gopichand admitted, “Saina beating Ratchanok (Intanon) was on the cards. But Sindhu beating Buranaprasertsuk and Ashwini-Jwala beating Indonesia's doubles pair on the same day made it really special.”
Jwala and Ashwini are of course no strangers to success and are a much better team than what their current ranking of 36 suggests. In 2011, they became the first Indian women to clinch a medal at the World Championships, paving the way for P V Sindhu’s similar feat in singles two years later. They were also the first Indian women’s doubles team to qualify for the Olympics in 2012.
India’s dependence on their only reliable doubles pair also highlights the dismal state of the game of doubles in the country. Saina and Sindhu had to be fielded for the second doubles match (instead of Gadre/Reddy) in the semis despite the fact that Sindhu was clearly drained after her epic win in the second singles rubber.
Tennis fans might wonder whether it was really that difficult for these two singles specialists to spring a surprise doubles win. Well, unlike tennis where many singles players may take up doubles to prolong their careers (as has been the case with Sania Mirza) , this is rarely an option in badminton. Here, doubles is not treated as a second-class sport and enjoys equal (if not more) importance. A shuttler starts training in doubles from an early age and does not have the luxury to see it as an alternate career.
Not surprisingly, Ponnappa has been continuously asking for a separate doubles coach to improve their game. The situation, however, is even worse in men’s doubles as evident from their solitary win over Germany in Thomas Cup.
Hopefully, both BAI and the media will understand the importance of popularising the game of doubles in the country and acknowledge the performances of Gutta/Ponnappa - the lone faces of Indian doubles in the badminton world.