Badminton ace Ashwini Ponappa tells Kalyan Ashok enjoying yourself on court is important for winning

There is no full stop on court for Ashwini Ponnappa. The 23-year-old who nowadays lives out of a suitcase, jetting across the world for tournaments and returning for national camps at Hyderabad and practice sessions at home in Bangalore. It is the kind of schedule that might drain out any young player, but Ashwini seems to enjoy every bit of it.. After a long stint on court at the Nest Sports Club, under the watchful eye of her coach, Tom John, Ashwini steps out to say: “Hi, sorry to keep you waiting can you give me a few more minutes? I will play one more game and get back.”

Ashwini is to Bangalore, what Saina Nehwal is to Hyderabad. If Saina is the undisputed queen of Indian badminton in singles, Ashwini is the rising star of the doubles. With her partner, Jwala Gutta, Ashwini brought India glory in the 2010 Commonwealth Games with a gold and a year later, won a bronze in the World championship and a string of title triumphs in the South Asian Games besides junior and senior National championships.

Success rests lightly on her slender shoulders, and there is no air of being a star. “Me a star! I have lot to achieve and I don’t think I have reached a stage where I can call myself a star!” says Ashwini modestly.

With Jwala no longer by her side on court, Ashwini has found a new team mate, Pradnya Gadre to play on the international circuit. Currently Ashwini and Pradnya duo are ranked 28th in the world.

“The season has been good so far with Pradnya. We have been playing together since September last year. I have also started playing mixed doubles with Tarun Kona and we are getting better with every tournament. Yes, it is quite a change. Jwala was far more experienced than me and Pradnya. I have been playing at the world level for past three years and Pradnya has been there for the past two years. We are focusing and gelling very well.”

When Ashwini took up playing doubles, after a stint as a singles players at the State and National level as a junior, her partner was another Bangalore girl, Nitya Sosale. “I was playing with Nitya and we had won lot of tournaments at state, national junior and senior levels. We had a good time, we were friends, and hung out together off court as well. But playing with Jwala was different. When she approached me to partner her, I was reluctant, because I had been partnering Nitya for so long. It is not every day, that a player like Jwala comes and asks you to partner her, so I said yes. It was an offer I could not refuse as she is the best doubles player in the country. When I teamed with her, her positive approach rubbed off on me. She was very encouraging. She was very good at the net and all I had to do play well at the back court. I would smash and she would finish it off — virtually no shuttle could get past her. I had a wonderful time, I learnt a lot and she was good fun, an extrovert and very outspoken. With Pradnya, it is different, both of us are a little introverted, but we are getting along well, we are enjoying ourselves on court and that is important for winning.”

The Coorgi girl thanks her coaches for where she is today. I had wonderful coaches to guide me. First it was Umpathy, at the State Youth Centre. When I moved to Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, it was a big leap forward. Prakash Sir, Vimal Sir and Vinod all have been a great help. At the national camps in Hyderabad, Gopi Chand and Indonesian coaches trained me further. Before the last Olympics, I also had the opportunity to train under S. M. Arif, a great coach. Now I am with Tom John, who is working really hard on my game. Coaches like Arif and Tom, never give up on players; they make sure each one reaches his/her potential.”

Ashwini’s big success came at New Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010, when she and Jwala bagged the doubles gold. “It was our first big win together, in front of a great crowd, they cheered our every point and there was a huge buzz whenever we played. It was a heady stuff. The World Championship bronze also ranks high on my best moments. What made them more special was the fact that we enjoyed ourselves on and off the court. After the matches, we used to interact with members of the other teams and have fun. We’d get back to the court later for the matches and focus on the game. The performances at both the events, gave me a lot of confidence.”

On areas which she would like to improve, Ashwini says: “I would like to improve my defence. Offence is good and playing with Tarun in mixed doubles, has improved my net game and it has also helped me in women’s doubles.”

“Ashwini has loads of confidence after the Commonwealth Games and World championship show and she has the ability to make her new partnership with Pradnya work,” says coach Tom John. “They are already stretching top pairs and it should be matter of time, before they get into top ten. Earlier she was playing with Jwala who took care of the front court while she took care of the back court. With Pradyna, it has to be all court game.”

Ashwini believes she can learn from every player. “I don’t have an idol as such, I love watching others and learn from them. In doubles, I love to watch Jawala Gutta and V.Diju when they played the mixed doubles. They were a great pair and reached the highest level in the game.”

She has been playing since she was eight and badminton has been an integral part of life. On whether she missed anything due to her passion for the game, Ashwini says: “I don’t think I am missing anything because of badminton. I have gained from badminton thanks to wonderful support of my parents, my coaches, school (St. Francis Xavier) and college (Mount Carmel).”

Looking back at her initiation into the game, Ashwini says, “I was a hyperactive kid and my parents put me into YMCA camp so that I could burn up my energy. The coaches there thought I had a promise and put me in that direction.”

An eye for fashion

Besides badminton, Ashwini loves tennis. “I like following the game. It is nice to watch what the women players are wearing and follow their fashion statements!”

On what players should wear on court, Ashwini says: “One should not enforce a dress code. Players should wear what they are comfortable in.”

On hobbies, the feisty shuttler says: “I love listening to music of mixed genre. Earlier I was reading romantic novels and now it is non-fiction, right now I am reading a biography of Muhammad Ali.” An animal lover, Ashwini says: “We had a dog at home, now we have lots of pigeons!”

Her favourite city in the world is London. “I like London, it is so nice, there is a buzz, lot of places to go and see. In terms of badminton, I love playing in Indonesia. There’s always a huge and knowledgeable crowd at the stadium. They make so much of din, but playing in such an atmosphere gets you high.”

When she is home, Ashwini loves to chill at home visiting friends and relatives. “All these, after my practice, of course.”

Looking ahead, Ashwini sets her sights on winning a gold in the Olympics at Rio, winning at the Commonwealth Games and the World Championship. It’s a long and tough road ahead, but Ashwini has what it takes and key to achieving those goals, is to relax and enjoy herself on the court. “I think that’s an important element, whenever I feel tense or nervous on court, I tell myself, Ashwini let go, have fun, and it works.”