Through the course of her career, Ashwini Ponnappa has been part of many firsts in women’s doubles for Indian badminton. Ponnappa and Jwala Gutta, became the first Indian women to win a badminton BWF World Championship medal (bronze in 2011). She has won gold, silver and bronze medals at the Commonwealth Games and also the women’s team bronze medal at the Incheon Asian Games in 2014. She has been part of Uber Cup bronze medal-winning squads.
But now the 33-year-old, a veteran of the sport in India, finds herself in the nascent stage of a women’s doubles partnership. In December, she made the decision to pair up with 19-year-old Tanisha Crasto for women’s doubles.
The change sees the once world No 10 women’s doubles player now find herself ranked 141 as a pair with Crasto, albeit they’ve played just two international competitions together – a quarterfinal finish at the Super 500 event in Indonesia in January, followed by a first round exit at the Thailand Open Super 300.
A third event was the quarterfinal finish at the 84th Senior National Championships, at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune on Sunday as they put up a good fight before losing against the in-form top-seed pairing of Gayatri Gopichand and Treesa Jolly.
It’s a long way back to the top, but in an interview with Scroll in Pune she asserted she’s looking forward to climbing back up the ladder, while also exploring a new role in commentary.
Excerpts from the interview:
How has the new partnership been working for you?
It’s good. Tanisha is young, she’s very energetic. It’s nice to play with that energy. We haven’t really had many tournaments together, we’ve played two and this is the third. But I’m excited to be here at the Nationals, it’s been a while since I played at this competition.
Earlier you had Jwala Gutta as a partner who was senior to you, then N Sikki Reddy who was not much dissimilar in terms of age. Now you have a partner who is 19. Are you also playing the role of mentor?
You could say that. I would say there’s a vast difference from when I started playing with Jwala to the youngsters now. They’ve all been playing international tournaments from when they were 17 or 18. They’ve all been there, done that. The doubles game has changed and the approach has changed. There’s not a lot of mentoring, she is good in mixed doubles and she’s done well there. Women’s doubles is a little different, but it’s good to have someone who moves into the net. She has that energy and speed on the court.
With age have you changed your approach to the game?
Of course. It’s inevitable for that to happen. I can’t be compared to a 19-year-old in terms of fitness and energy on court. I definitely have to be smarter on court towards the game in order to make sure that I can physically take the toll that badminton has on the body. I have to be very mindful of my training and how I approach the game.
Is it about the warmups and cooldowns getting longer now for you?
Yeah. Probably. But I’ve always been someone who had a longer duration for warmup. But cooldown definitely still needs to get better.
Recently we saw a different side to you – as a commentator. How was that experience?
I happened to be at the tournament and they asked me if I’d like to give it a shot. I felt no harm in doing that, although I feel that it’s not my cup of tea in terms of how I speak. I’d love to get better at it.
But I loved the experience. It was fun being on the other side of the TV. Watching players play you see things differently. You see patterns which you otherwise don’t look out for unless you’re getting ready for a match. That was interesting for me.
I sat for five matches during the Thailand Open, it was interesting for me to watch patterns match out of match. Like if one side was slower or faster, how players dealt with it. You understand that the player who is actually smarter on that day in dealing with the conditions has the upper hand. So that was very interesting that way.
Do you feel there were more expectations when you’re in the commentary box? Since people know here’s someone who has played at the highest level, is there an expectation for some insight which you’d not get otherwise?
Yeah, I am supposed to be the expert. The colour commentary part of it. It does get tricky because, that’s what I meant that it’s not my cup of tea. Not in a bad way, but being articulate about what I see, I’m not a journalist, I’m don’t have the lingo for it. So sometimes I feel, ‘what am I saying?’ Sometimes it’s so repetitive. But it was nice. Although I was a bit nervous, it was an enjoyable experience.
Is that something you’re looking to pursue later on?
Maybe later. Honestly, I don’t know. Right now, I’m definitely focusing on the game. But if I get these opportunities in between to commentate, I’ll definitely give it a shot.
What are the kind of things you and Tanisha have to do off-court just to get the chemistry going to gel on-court? And what are the targets?
This was our third tournament together. We’ve sent out entries for tournaments where we haven’t got an entry. But Tanisha will be playing in mixed doubles (with Ishaan Bhatnagar) in those tournaments. We haven’t had so much time in general to build the partnership because it is brand new, we just started. There’s still a long way to go, we still need that bonding time.
Is that, perhaps the target?
I would say the first target is to get an entry.
You mentioned the doubles game has changed. How?
Over the years the whole approach has changed. When Jwala and I were playing, we were kind of like the path-breakers in a way for doubles. There wasn’t a lot before us. Nobody we could look up to, nobody who had ever won. We had a lot of firsts together. But the game-changer has been that youngsters have been given a lot of exposure to tournaments. They’ve been playing tournaments since they are 17 – that was unheard of back then. We didn’t even have those tournaments in India.
Right now we have four international tournaments in India. You’re giving youngsters an opportunity to get that hunger at a very young age because you’re giving them a taste of what international badminton is. Also, everyone is going out, everyone is sponsored. That’s changed.
That’s why you see a lot of youngsters playing and taking it up. Otherwise, our generation, people in the past, they trained a lot, but never played tournaments. I wouldn’t say you didn’t have that talent back then, you just didn’t know. They were just training, they didn’t have the exposure, no push to go out. That has changed, and that’s why we see a rise in a lot of doubles players playing and doing well.
It’s because they’ve been pushed from a young age, getting out to participate, get that exposure, start training at a young age. These girls are 19. At that time, at 19, nobody was really encouraged to go out.
Yet you’ve remained relevant throughout this. What’s been the changes you’ve had to make in the way you approach the game to continue playing at the highest level?
I would say, I still need to get to the top. I have, in the past. But currently I’m starting from scratch. Ground zero. It’s challenging because you’ve been there and you’re coming back all the way down. It’s a reset.