With six medals in her kitty, two of them gold, Ashwini Ponnappa is one of the most successful Indian athletes in the Commonwealth Games (CWG).
It was at the 2010 New Delhi edition that Ponnappa and Jwala Gutta burst on to the scene by winning the women’s doubles gold—a first for India in CWG—in front of cheering fans at the Siri Fort Sports Complex. It propelled India to second place in the medals tally and made her a household name.
Birmingham, 12 years on, though didn’t go as expected.
As defending champions, India lost the mixed team final 1-3 to Malaysia. Ponnappa contributed by winning all three matches in the group stages before winning in the quarter-final too. She didn’t get to play a part in the semi-final—which India won 3-0 against Singapore—and the final as the ties got over before her match.
In addition, her individual event—mixed doubles with B Sumeeth Reddy—was a failure as the pair lost their opener to England’s Callum Hemming and Jessica Pugh.
“In the mixed team event, of course we were aiming for gold but had to settle for silver. But I’m happy for that. The individual event, pretty disappointed with the way we performed. I was looking forward to performing and playing really well, but it wasn’t meant to be this time. That was a little hard to take,” said the 32-year-old.
In individual events, Ponnappa has a full set of women’s doubles medals at CWG, having won gold, silver and bronze in 2010, 2014 and 2018 respectively. This time though she failed to make the cut for the event with Sikki Reddy in the selection trials.
“Soon after we lost (in mixed), I wasn’t really upset because I felt like we had given the best we could on that day but it just dawned on me that we lost in the first round and that was hard to take, especially considering that I have done fairly well in the Commonwealth Games in individual events,” she said. “I am pretty critical of myself. It’s not always good, it can be pretty bad. Fortunately, my husband was also there. I could take the load off my mind and unwind.”
The BWF World Tour too hasn’t exactly gone according to Ponnappa’s expectations of late, losing in the opening rounds of several tournaments. This is in sharp contrast to the success she had with Jwala Gutta early in her career.
After winning the 2010 CWG gold, Ponnappa and Gutta made an impact in the 2011 World Championships when they ended a 28-year wait to win only India’s second medal—a bronze—in the premier tournament. Prakash Padukone had been the only Indian to medal at the global event until then. They are still the only Indian pair to medal at the World Championships.
The pair guided India to its first Uber Cup medal—a bronze—in 2014, winning a bronze in 2016 too. In between, the pair claimed a CWG silver in 2014, bronze at the 2014 Asian Championships, the 2015 Canada Open crown and also entered the world top 10 in rankings.
An aggressive Gutta’s tap-ins at the net and Ponnappa smashing from back court was a pleasing picture Indian badminton aficionados looked forward to. The scenario changed once Gutta retired after the 2016 Rio Olympics as Ponnappa could never replicate the success with current partner N Sikki Reddy.
“It is very difficult because I play doubles and not singles. It is about changing partners, it is about adapting, it is about making things work. When I started my career, I was fortunate our game styles matched, things clicked. There wasn’t a lot of thinking to do,” said Ponnappa. “But the second time around there was a lot of work that needed to be put in, still being put in. It’s very different, quite a contrast.”
Next up is the Tokyo World Championships starting on Monday. It is a tournament where she had one of her biggest moments. But it won’t be easy this time around. Ponnappa and Reddy start against Aminath Nabeeha and Fathimath Nabaaha of Maldives and are drawn to face world champions Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan of China next. “We have a very tough draw. We run into the top seeds in the second round, but we’ll definitely go and give our best and hope for a good outcome,” said Ponnappa.
Having been on the circuit for more than 15 years, Ponnappa is looking forward to taking a break after Tokyo. “I feel like I am at a stage where I’ve played for quite some time. I still feel I have a lot of badminton (left) in me but definitely feel I need to reset,” said Ponnappa. “Probably after the World Championships I want to take a mini break and get my mind in order because I have been playing for a long time.”
Asked to elaborate about the break, Ponnappa laughed. “Not right now. I still feel like there are certain things that I need to do. Probably after that, then I can elaborate.”