'With some luck, we can win medals in badminton'
Ashwini Ponnappa, who will partner Jwala Gutta in the women's doubles at the Olympics, is confident of peaking in time and doing well at the mega event.
If there is one discipline that holds out medal hopes for India at the London Olympics, it is badminton. Besides P Kashyap and Saina Nehwal in the men's and women's singles, the chances of winning medals from the discipline are also bright in women's and mixed doubles, in which the pairs of Ashwini Ponnappa-Jwala Gutta and V Diju-Gutta have respectively qualified.
In fact, all eyes will be on the Ponnappa-Gutta pair, which won gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and bronze at the World Championships last year.
Radhika Rajamani caught up with Ponnappa at the L B Stadium in Hyderabad to find out about her preparations for the Games. Despite the pair losing in the first round of the Indonesia Open Super Series and in the pre-quarter-finals of the Singapore Super Series, the 22-year-old expressed confidence of peaking in time and doing well at the mega event.
How are you preparing for the Olympics?
We've been training and working really hard. We train either at Gachhibowli [in Hyderabad] with coach Edwin [Iriawan of Indonesia] or at L B Stadium with Arif Sir.
Regarding physical fitness, I train at the gym. So, basically, everything is taken care of. We have to put in our best efforts. We have had more time to train this time, almost three months. It's more focussed and we have a proper goal.
Does India stand a chance of winning gold medals at the Olympics?
Yes, most definitely! As all of us are working hard; we are capable of winning a medal, be it in singles, doubles or mixed doubles. A little bit of the luck factor matters. We have to go out there with our heads held high, with all confidence and get out on the court and see what happens.
What role does luck play in the game?
I think, in every sport, every game, luck plays its part. You work very hard, you train well, you are really pumped up, but you also need that little bit of luck.
How did you come to partner Jwala Gutta?
That was something I never dreamt or thought of. It was Jwala who came and asked me, and I was stunned. 'Oh my God, Jwala is asking me to partner her!' I had another partner with whom I had been playing for eight years and we won four national titles together -- two sub-juniors in the Under-16 and two in the Under-19 category. We were good friends also.
The person who helped me make that decision was Vimal Kumar Sir. When I asked him what to do, he gave me the right advice and I am thankful to him, as he told me it will be a good opportunity for you to partner Jwala since she's a senior player, she's very experienced and you will learn a lot. The minute he said it my decision was made.
How do you two practice together and strategise?
The lucky part is I moved to Hyderabad at the right time. Jwala's from Hyderabad. So playing together wasn't a problem after all. We get to train at either the L B stadium (Indoor stadium) or at Gachhibowli (here we train at Gopi Sir's academy under Edwin, an Indonesian coach who looks after doubles players).
Jwala strategises, because she's a better observer when it comes to international surfaces as she's been there for a longer time than I have. She's got a lot of experience on her side. She tells me how to play and how we are going to play the match. We are lucky to work with Arif Sir, who patiently explains things to us and coach Edwin.
Image: Ashwini Ponnappa (left) and Jwala Gutta with their Commonwealth Games gold medals
'I was a little reluctant to play doubles'
How did you decide to choose doubles over singles?
That just happened; I didn't quite decide! I was a little reluctant initially. I wanted to play singles and doubles, as I hadn't played singles really well. I have always done well in doubles -- have been natural at it. Singles was something that I wanted to give a fresh shot and do well and also because I had the potential to do so but I didn't do well.
In camps I was slowly selected for doubles rather than singles. That's how the transformation happened.
How do you see the future of badminton in the country?
It's going in a good direction and I want it to continue in the same direction, improving with more exposure.
What can be done to improve the sport in India?
I think for the Indian circuit to improve we have to have more tournaments for players who aren't representing the country in the international circuit, because they need to be given an opportunity to prove themselves and get on to the international game. I think it's quite important that we have more tournaments where they can showcase their talent.
There are so many badminton players who won national and world titles yet badminton does not enjoy the status and glamour as cricket and tennis. Why?
You can't quite compare cricket to any other sports in the country. I think tennis in the Indian circuit is almost the same. Cricket is on a totally different platform. It's like a business, it's like a religion, it's like kind of everything. Compared to the other sports, badminton is doing better. With Saina doing well, Jwala and I are doing well, Jwala and Diju doing well and with all the other players slowly coming up and doing well it's good for the sport and it's going in a good way. In the last couple of years, with the kind of push and coverage that we've got, it seems to be getting better and better.
Hyderabad seems to be the happening place for badminton as there are lots of players from the city from Gopichand, Saina, Jwala, you, Kashyap and other budding players...
I'm from Bangalore.
But, you are right now in Hyderabad.
The national camps are held in Hyderabad. So players from all over the country come here to train. Also, the facilities available here are good.
How did you get interested in badminton?
According to my mom, when she was carrying my brother she couldn't keep running around behind me as I was a hyperactive three-year-old kid. To keep me occupied she gave me a racquet and made paper balls and threw them at me and I was connecting it really well. That was the first time I probably held a racquet. So, it's basically my parents who put me into badminton.
As a child did you play other games as well?
I was a good athlete. I would just run.
You trained at the Prakash Padukone Academy...
I started off at the age of eight, under Umapathi Sir who was my first coach. I enjoyed it. Umapathi Sir was a good coach. Then I started playing under-10 tournaments. I was runner-up at the State level. Later I moved on to under-13 and started doing well. I won the State Championships and moved to the Prakash Padukone Academy, because my coach also died. His death was unfortunate. I was at the academy until I finished my junior level (under-13, under-16, under-19). I won my first National title when I was 16 years old.
What was your parents' role in your training?
I think you need your parents' guidance in everything. In terms of badminton, they have vigorously taken time off work and driven me from school to practice and back home. They have done a lot of driving around, which isn't quite easy. Both of them are working. I think they have also been lucky that their companies have been fairly lenient and given them time off work. That's been of big help. My dad would travel with me for tournaments through the year until I was in the under-19.
How did you manage your education? Was juggling both badminton and education difficult?
Not quite. When I was training with the academy in Bangalore, both Prakash Sir and Vimal Sir and other coaches were particular that all those who were in school focussed on their education as well as badminton. There was no question of bunking school and training at least till we finished Class X. After we got done with Class X you had to switch your focus either towards education or badminton. My school was wonderful. I went to St. Francis Xavier Girls' High School in Bangalore. The principal was supportive. She would give me time off. I would get out of school by 2.15 pm while school would normally get over at 3.30 pm. That was of great help.
Image: Ponnappa and Gutta in action
'I have Jwala motivating me'
How was it being trained by Prakash Padukone?
It was wonderful. At the academy I not only had Prakash Sir, I had Vimal Sir also, who was a former national coach, and Balu Sir. We had these coaches who were dedicated to training a whole lot of us. In my age-group there were six-seven girls training. So, the atmosphere was really nice. Prakash Sir was really nice. It was wonderful training there.
What made you shift to Hyderabad?
My dad got transferred to Chennai and he tried to opt for Hyderabad, and the bank being supportive and understanding he got a transfer to Hyderabad. I was coming either way to Hyderabad for the National camp. The fact that they got transferred made it easier for me as I could get back home over the weekends and have home food.
How do you work on your physical fitness? Do you run or do yoga?
I don't quite run much. I've stopped running. I train under Gavin Sir at the gym. He looks after my physical fitness.
Do you do yoga?
I've been asked by my mother to do yoga. I do it a couple of days and I stop. I'm a little lazy when it comes to yoga.
What's your diet like? Does it complement your physical fitness?
My mum's been really particular about the kind of food we eat at home. She makes sure we get the best, most nutritious and healthy food. I just eat what my mum gives and I know that's healthy. There are times when I go out of control and binge on a lot of sweets but the minute that I realise I am gaining weight then I cut down completely. I can't help it. I've never restricted myself from eating stuff that I like.
How do you unwind at the end of the day -- be it championship time or an ordinary day?
On a regular day I am too tired to do anything. I am so hungry that I just have my dinner, laze around, sit and talk to my mum and dad and with my brother, if he is at home. If I'm kind of up to it then I call my friends and then we go and have juice. That's about it.
On a weekend I wouldn't mind going out to a movie with my friends or family.
How do you keep yourself motivated?
By various ways. I have Jwala motivating me, my parents, friends, coaches motivating me. Movies are also quite inspirational.
How do you tackle success and failure?
Success is nice. It's happier than failure. When there's failure I do get upset. I'm a little on the crying side unfortunately, but I have Jwala telling me this is one match, there are so many matches to go, there are so many opportunities to get better, and my mum who is my moral support. Anything happens I tell my mum and dad.
What are your favourite interests?
I love listening to music, reading books, watching movies. I do love to shop with my mum. I love to buy shoes. I listen to mixed genres of music depending on my mood.
Image: Ponnappa and Gutta