After six long years, thrown in with a couple of breaks in between, Indian badminton's most successful women's doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa will not be seen together on the court. It is the end of familiarity of collaborative success and as the former teammates make a new start, it will be an equal testing ground for both.

A shift in professional focus brought about the end, specifically for Gutta than Ponnappa. The 32-year-old is keen to go back to playing mixed doubles, the speciality through which she gained initial recognition as a doubles expert globally.

The Hyderabad resident and Valiyaveetil Diju were the country’s first mixed doubles team to win a Grand Prix Gold title at the 2009 Chinese Taipei Open. A year later, she and Diju had broken into the top 10 of the rankings, in the sixth place, a career-high even until now. Her mixed doubles career however petered out, except for a few sporadic events in the years thereafter, influenced by the affirmativeness of her results in women’s doubles with Ponnappa.

Their breakthrough in 2010

Gutta’s initial team-up in 2010 with a Ponnappa, who was 21 then, was happenstance that left everyone pleasantly surprised, even them, as they won the gold medal in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi that year. The immediacy and frequency of their successes became the beacon of the nation’s flagging hopes in the sport on its doubles front.

One reason for their combination working out was that their variant styles of play – with Gutta taking guard at the net and Ponnappa giving the team a brace from the back of the court – was in tandem with their divergent personalities. Much as Gutta’s fiery personality was tempered by Ponnappa's calmness away from the game, her aggression on court was well-matched by her assertiveness in their performances. There was a deeper penetrating factor as well.

When they began their partnership, Gutta was already established herself in the Indian badminton circuit, while Ponnappa was making her start. The mentor-mentee relationship instead of lending awkwardness to their team gave them balance and room to improve. This was felt in 2013 as well, when they reunited again after having split following the 2012 London Games. That time, each seemed to be heading in different directions. Gutta put her career on hold even as Ponnappa continued along, forming a pairing with Pradnya Gadre.

A perspective change

More than half a decade later, the equation had unequivocally changed with them exhausting the avenues for them to learn and gain off each other. Gutta observed as much when announcing the end of their association. “I realised that Ashwini and I weren’t growing as a pair. I felt that we were stagnating. It was a very difficult decision to make, but one that had to be made.”

The end of their journey thus offers Ponnappa a chance to give back. By taking over the role of the senior partner and helping a younger player come to her own. She is gearing to do so, with N Sikki Reddy, whom she will be partnered with, from the Scottish Open, later in November.

“Partnerships take time to develop. Jwala had tons of experience. She shouldered the responsibility well. With Sikki again I expect it will take a little time,” opined Ponnappa about her nascent teaming up with Reddy, subtly making a reference to the fact that the new team will face a cascade of expectations after the previous highs attained.

For Gutta though, more than an anticipation of results, it is about getting reacquainted – and reconnected – with a former area of expertise. “I won’t be playing women’s doubles. I kind of missed playing mixed doubles. I’ve enjoyed my phase of playing women’s doubles. I want to play mixed doubles again,” stated Gutta. Considering that the mixed doubles circuit in the country has still not perked up after the spate of wins notched by Gutta and Diju, it gives Gutta another opportunity to give it a rejuvenating leg-up, this time with Manu Attri.

Irrespective of the promises that could be ushered in with these changes, nostalgia about the past will also be predominant. But rather than be used as a referential comparison, these remembrances will have to be the markers of past achievements and the swivelling indicators of time that is untravelled in its movement forward.