Among them is Ashwini Ponnappa who, along with Jwala Gutta, won the bronze medal at last year’s World Championships. The pair knows if they can match that performance or go one better, it will catapult them into Indian sporting immortality. Medals have been rare for their country in Olympic competition; only winning seven in individual events during the past 60 years.
Ponnappa and Gutta are an interesting combination. While Gutta is the more colourful and outspoken of the two, Ponnappa is soft-spoken and weighs her words well before she opens up. Gutta is the senior partner, having begun her career six years before Ponnappa came on the scene. Gutta’s regular partner was Shruti Kurien at the time and, though they were undisputed national champions for a long time, they had limited international success. The two split around 2009 and Gutta found the partner she was looking for in Ponnappa. The partnership works because the 22-year-old trusts Gutta as the leader and respects her reading of match situations and opponents. While 28-year-old Gutta (pictured left) is a clever net player, Ponnappa does the running and hitting from the back court. It’s a union that has served India well in the last three years; boasting Commonwealth Games gold to add to their bronze at Worlds.
“I am confident, but at the same time I don’t want to sound overconfident,” said Ponnappa, of their Olympic chances. “It depends how we play. The important thing is that the two of us are going and we hope to start well.”
Ponnappa (pictured right) is a Bangalore girl but actually from Kodava stock. The Kodavas are the hill people of Kodagu in south India with their own distinctive culture and language. They are especially renowned as a martial and athletic people who have produced famous soldiers, athletes and hockey players. Ponnappa is probably the first Kodava to represent India in badminton. The athletic genes of her forefathers have always been evident in Ponnappa’s case, even in her youthful days. Her fitness and strength have long been lauded as exemplary by her coaches at Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy during her junior years.
“When you play at international level, you are all at the same as far as technique goes,” noted Ponnappa. “However, we can’t deny that we are not as physically strong and flexible as the Chinese since our Indian body type is not really cut out to be that way. But we put in a lot of effort to improve our strength and fitness to compete at that level.”
It will be a difficult task for the two to make a mark at the Olympics. The top Chinese and Korean pairs such as – Wang Xiaoli/Yu Yang, Qing Tian/Zhao Yunlei and Ha Jung Eun/Kim Min Jung – are in a league of their own. However, Gutta and Ponnappa fancy their chances against the other top-ten pairs. The World Championships bronze has given them the belief that Olympic success is not as far-fetched as it might seem.
“If we keep working hard and playing top tournaments, I am sure it will be just a matter of time before we establish ourselves in the top-five of the world,” declared Ponnappa.
“I know Gutta and I can get a medal.”
If they do return with a medal, women’s doubles badminton – long ignored in India – will be the toast of the nation.