It’s hard to believe sometimes that Ashwini Ponnappa is already 29 years old. Just two years ago, at the Rio Olympics, she was the junior doubles partner of the experienced Jwala Gutta. Now, she is the leader, in not one but two doubles partnerships.
Ashwini has really come into her own this season in terms of taking charge of her partnerships with both N Sikki Reddy, 25, and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, 18. In April, she assumed charge and guided Satwik through to a brilliant win over the current world No 6 pair Chan Peng Soon/Goh Liu Ying of Malaysia to help India win the mixed team gold.
Throughout that one-hour-15-minute long match, Ashwini was seen constantly talking to Satwik in between points, guiding him tactically and also motivating him to push on. She did the same later with Sikki, as they won a historic bronze medal in the pair events.
Earlier this month, at the Denmark Open, Ashwini and Sikki defeated the world No 7 pair Lee So Hee and Shin Seung Chan from Korea despite going a game down. While that match was unfortunately not televised, Ashwini’s leadership was there to be seen in the quarter-finals, where the Indians faced the top-ranked Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota of Japan.
Even though the Indians, currently ranked 24th in the world, lost that match in straight games, the way Ashwini took charge of their partnership was heartening.
Reading the game
“I don’t see it as a leadership role,” says Ashwini, during an interaction in Mumbai at an event organised by Red Bull, which sponsors her. “It’s just a partnership where I have a lot to say,” she added, laughing. “My partners have been kind enough to let me voice my opinion and accept it.”
Sikki, butting in, says, “She reads the game very well. Being a very experienced player, her guidance is good for us because it makes it easier for us to play. We don’t need to think too much. Just go for what she says,” she adds, laughing.
From starting out as someone who hardly worked her grey matter during matches, Ashwini says she has evolved over the years into someone who loves using her head while playing.
“I love thinking,” she says. “Over the years, I have just evolved as a player from someone who used to just hit and hit, to someone who just really loves to watch my opponents, see things and figure out how we can get better as a pair. That’s something I am relishing. I really love using my head, I’d say.”
While Ashwini has all the intentions to play at the Tokyo Olympics in two years, when she will be nearly 31, does she see herself going into coaching after she hangs up her racket? “I don’t know, maybe, because I really enjoy thinking and analysing,” she says.
“I do love figuring things out – what’s good for us, what sort of drills would help us get better, what kind of rotation we could work on… those are things that of late my mind really thinks about. I love watching and learning, so maybe, yeah. I would love to [coach], I guess.”
Ashwini is quite pleased with how this season has gone for her, despite not going past the quarter-finals in any BWF World Tour tournament. She has been able to get the odd good result with both her partnerships but not really challenged for a medal, apart from the Commonwealth Games.
However, Ashwini believes their consistency as pairs has gotten better after the Commonwealth Games, especially with Sikki. After their bronze at Gold Coast, the Indian women’s doubles pair reached the quarters at the Asian Games and the Denmark Open.
“We have figured out the way we want to play,” Ashwini says, of her partnership with Sikki. “The Asian Games was good. We had a great match in the quarters [against the current world No 4 pair from China]. We could have won it. We were close but not quite there.”
Ashwini believes they are heading in the right direction, ahead of their last three international tournaments of the season: the China Open, the Hong Kong Open and the Syed Modi Championships.
“We are quite keen to do even better in the future,” she says. “The quarters is a start but hopefully we’ll win a Superseries soon.”