2016 was a milestone year for Ashwini Ponnappa. But it wasn’t memorable.

After recovering from a bout of dengue, she went to the Rio Olympics with longtime doubles partner Jwala Gutta hoping to better their performance from London 2012. Unfortunately, they ended up losing all their matches in the group stage. It was the last time India’s most successful doubles pairing played together.

A partnership lasted for nearly seven years and saw them win a bronze medal at the 2011 World Championship, a gold and a silver medal in the 2010 and 2014 Commonwealth Games respectively.

Ponnappa, in her own words, is a fiercely loyal person who did not like changing partners. She had struggled to find her mojo when Gutta had taken a break after the 2012 London Olympics and played with Pradnya Gadre for a while.

Now, physically and mentally, she was facing a challenge. Fast forward to June 2017, physically and mentally, she is at a good space.

“Life has changed a lot,” says a relaxed Ponnappa, in an interaction with Scroll.in at the Red Bull office in Mumbai. Her words carry an air of unmistakable satisfaction – the tone of an athlete who has endured a tough time and managed to break out of it. There is no hint of exaggeration and she speaks uninterrupted for a good few minutes, articulating the ups and downs of the past few months.

Photo courtesy: Red Bull

The biggest change, she says, has been the influence of India’s new doubles coach Tim Kim Her. Now, pairing decisions are not solely left to the players.

“That would have never happened, had it solely been my decision,” says Ponnappa, before her departure for the Indonesian Super Series Premier. “I am the kind of person who thinks if I have given my word to a person, I will stick to it.”

She adds, “Now the coaches decide and if there is a need to switch partners, we switch. It’s about how we are playing together, how the partnership is developing and if there is scope to develop. Now I am open to a lot of things that in the past I was closed to. I am open to suggestions that have helped me grow even more than I have grown in the last couple of years.”

“I have accepted that if things don’t work out in a particular partnership, it’s time to change. I am open to a lot of things now, not really narrow-minded in my approach towards the game,” she adds.

While Ponnappa’s current doubles partner, N Sikki Reddy, has been a constant, she has played with three different mixed doubles partners – K Nandagopal, B Sumeeth Reddy and Satwiksairaj.

Her partnership with Sikki has been constantly improving. The pair started playing in November last year and began 2017, ranked 110th in the world. Halfway through the season, the duo had breached the top 30 and are currently ranked 28th. A title has proved elusive, but they came close at Syed Modi GPG with a runner-up performance. Ponnappa’s excitement about her new partnership is evident.

Back to Jakarta for the Indonesia Open 2017.Love playing this tournament #letsgo#comeon💪🏼👊🏻😊

A post shared by Ashwini Ponnappa (@p9ashwini) on

“From having a set combination with Jwala, where I understood exactly what my role was, to playing with Sikki where I was not exactly sure about where I move, what I need to do, [it was a bit difficult initially],” says Ponnappa. “Sikki is an excellent mover. I came to realise she is essentially a back-court player too, like me. And both of us being good at the back helps us rotate, we can move in, we can mix it up. That’s helped a lot. We are finding out areas which are our strong points. With every tournament we are getting more confident with the rotation. That’s been important for me, it tells me we are in the right direction.”

Ponnappa, over the years, had developed the reputation of being the quieter one with Gutta known to be more vocal. Even their on-court chemistry gave the impression that Gutta was the dominant half of the pair, and Ponnappa was, for want of a better word, a follower. Mention that to her and she chuckles and says ‘Jwala used to listen to me as well!’ with a sheepish smile. But now, Ponnappa is the senior-most doubles player in the country and that comes with the responsibility of being a mentor – a role she is enjoying. And without any senior-junior segregation.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” she says. “I just like figuring out things – like how to play an opponent, watch videos. That helps me guide my partners. It doesn’t mean I am the senior partner and I should be the only one making calls. If they tell me, ‘Ashwini, you could move to the net here’, I am all ears. There is no such thing as I am the senior partner and the other is a junior partner. Once we are on court, we are one unit. My experience does help a bit, I can help them relax and calm their nerves in certain situations.”

While women’s doubles was always Ponnappa’s focus, she has found a new-found vigour to succeed in mixed doubles. While she has played mixed doubles often, she admits, until now, she never gave it her complete attention. If it was 100% focus on women’s doubles and about half of that for mixed earlier, now both are equal in her eyes.

She says venturing into mixed doubles seriously has added new facets to her game. Her agility has increased, she moves with ease and is starting to hold her own at the net as well.

So how difficult was it for her to adopt to this new system?

“It wasn’t easy,” she says. “That three-month break [after Olympics] was important, because physically I was not fit at all. I had dengue just before Olympics and that shattered my body. Even when I started training again, my body was not responding. In my head I knew I had no injury but my body did not listen. I kept asking ‘Why am I struggling to play? Why am I struggling to smash?’”

What followed was introspection as Ponnappa spent time on regaining, and more-importantly, redefining her physical fitness along with opening her mind to learning new things about her game. After a tough period in Indian doubles badminton, Ponnappa is excited about finding out where this new phase is headed.

“With this sort of mindset, I am enjoying doubles, enjoying mixed doubles, enjoying playing with Sikki, enjoying the rotation, enjoying the communication, enjoying moving to the net. It’s just been a whole lot of fun. There is never an end to learning, never an end to growing, if you are really excited about the game.”