Since teaming up last year after going their own ways, the women’s doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa have had to recalibrate their respective games to complement each other. The doubles specialists had chosen to seek out new partners but joined hands after achieving little success when not playing together. In their previous stint, one during which they won the World Championship bronze and the Commonwealth Games gold, opponents were wary of the presence of Jwala at the net while Ashwini threatened with her ability to hit one of the hardest smashes in the women’s game.
But during her time away from Jwala, Ashwini discovered the joys of executing flat returns and using soft hands as her net game developed. Moreover, without the overbearing influence of Jwala, she took the lead in analysing opponents’ game plans when she teamed up with Pradnya Gadre.
So when they renewed their partnership, they were expected to become an even more impressive pairing as Ashwini had developed into a more versatile player and Jwala had lost kilograms in an effort to stay sharper on court. Progress was slow initially but the bronze at the Asian Badminton Championships recently gave them confidence required to take on the better teams in a year of the Commonwealth and Asian Games.
The pair also added weight to India’s challenge in the Uber Cup finals at home, and being the highest ranked doubles pair in the country, they would play the first doubles tie. With Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu taking on the top two players from other teams, the country’s strongest doubles pairing was a vital cog in the wheel.
On Monday, once Saina made short work of Hong Kong’s Yip Pui Yin in the opening game, it was the turn of Jwala-Ashwini to extend the lead against Chau Hoi Wah and Poon Lok Yan. But after going neck and neck till 4-all, the pair from Hong Kong pulled away by winning seven points on the trot. A 4-11 deficit in the first game is not a cause for alarm but can be difficult to surmount.
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But after looking like they were going to come off second best in the first game, Jwala and Ashwini crawled back into the game with better anticipation and sharper execution of strokes. After closing the gap to 8-11 and 13-17, the Indians managed to level scores at 17-all. Four quick points later, Jwala and Ashwini were in the lead.
In the second game too, the script was similar as the pair from Hong Kong took a 7-3 lead but by now the Indians had stepped up their game. From 7-7, there was only one pair that was going to win the game. In 31 minutes, the Indians had overcome a deficit in the first and second games to give their team a vital 2-0 lead. That Jwala and Ashwini were able to hold their nerves and recover from the slow starts ensured India were not stretched in their tie.
Sindhu, much like Saina, steamrolled past Cheung Ying Mei to help India take an unassailable 3-0 (4-1) lead and helped India book a place in the Uber Cup quarterfinals, a stage they last reached in 2010 in the biennial tournament. The fightback from Jwala and Ashwini was invaluable because a slip-up would have given Hong Kong the confidence to make a comeback through the second doubles and third singles.
On Tuesday, with their place in the last eight already secure, India will play Thailand in their last group stage encounter of the Uber Cup.
The men’s final group game against Germany on Wednesday will be of only academic interest after they lost a must-win tie against Korea. Though P Kashyap and RMV Gurusaidutt won their respective games against lower ranked players, the decisive match proved to be the opening one between India’s highest-ranked player K Srikanth (No.18) and World No.9 Son Wan Ho.
Srikanth headed into Monday’s game with a 2-0 head-to-head advantage over the Korean. But both previous encounters had been close affairs, the most recent one in January going to three games. In spite of producing an array of impressive jump smashes and running the top-10 player close, Srikanth produced a series of unforced errors to lose the third game 18-21 after the first two finished at 17-21 and 21-12 in a match that lasted 11 minutes beyond the hour mark.
Thomas Cup: Korea 3 bt India 2
Wan Ho Son bt K Srikanth 17-21, 21-12, 21-18, Yeon Seong Yoo-Yong Dae Lee bt Sumeeth Reddy B-Manu Attri 21-18, 21-17, Dong Keun Lee lost to P Kashyap 17-21, 14-21, Sa Rang Kim-Akshay Dewalkar-Pranaav Jerry Chopra 21-16, 21-16, Hwang Jong Soo lost to RMV Gurusaidutt 22-24, 13-21.
Uber Cup: India bt Hong Kong 4-1
Saina Nehwal bt Yip Pui Yin 21-9, 21-10, Jwala Gutta-Ashwini Ponnappa bt Hoi Wah Chau-Lok Yan Poon 21-17, 21-13, PV Sindhu bt Ying Mei Cheung 21-8, 21-10, Siki Reddy-Pradnya Gadre lost to Tsz Ka Chan-Ying Suet Tse 14-21, 11-21, PC Thulasi bt Hung Yung Chan 19-21 21-16 21-7