How did doubles start?
I was a junior national champion in singles and doubles, ranked No 2 in 1999-2000 in seniors as well. At that point in time, the Indian team never had a strong doubles player, and in 2000-01 we won the senior nationals. Slowly, inclination towards doubles happened. Before me, people played multiple events–singles and doubles. Nobody picked it at a young age–seniors used to retire and then take up doubles. But I was the only one who took up doubles so seriously.
Was it tough without a big tradition in the country?
I believed in myself, though lot of people discouraged me including my parents. They asked–why are you doing this? I’d beaten Aparna Popat that time.. she’d been winning everything and I was 16, and I was doing well in women’s singles. I always believed I understood the game of doubles and could play with anybody in the camp. And the results came immediately; in 2003 I won the Asian Satellite in Bangalore. So I started winning very early internationally. V Diju and me, the first year we played in 2005, we won our first tournament. Diju and me are the first and only Indian pair to reach semis of (Korea) Super Series. We beat the English to win silver at the Commonwealth Games team championships. It was incredible playing with Diju, he made it easy for me. He was very understanding and nice guy. I really miss him as a person. He’s definitely my favourite partner. I’m emotionally attached to him, we were juniors when we were paired, and grew up together. He’ll always have a special place in my heart.
What made you good at doubles?
Specifically, I was very good at serving and receiving, very important in doubles. I’m the only one who serves forehand service. I was a very creative player, I created lot of strokes which nobody expected me to. I was a very good observer – used to plan and figure weaknesses of opponents quickly, and I had to deal with two of them, not just one. I was very good at the net, and at the back from where you have to smash in a specific way that the next shuttle will go to my partner. I was good at analysing, the whole planning of a rally. Basically I understood the whole point of doubles, the coordination. I can play with anybody today if I just pick up the racquet. In between aisa bhi ho gaya tha – BAI was kinda troubling me and not allowing me to play— I was gonna play with my mother.
I didn’t have a partner, so I said I’ll play with my mother at one of the national level tournaments. I was pretty confident of what I had in me. My mother played in her school, and China is known for badminton. And she played badminton and did gymnastics. When she was 17-18, she came to India and in four years she got married to my dad. My dad always wanted me to be sportsperson, but she introduced me to badminton.
Why’s it tough for Indians to ace doubles?
I wouldn’t say there’s anything inherently lacking in speed and skills. You can always develop it. It’s not like the Chinese or Koreans can play doubles since the day they were born. That’s the kind of encouragement and treatment they got in their country. They never thought twice before picking doubles. Not so, sadly in India. Now I was World No 6. If there was a world No 6 in singles, she or he would have been taken care of completely and pushed to No 1.
Was the specialist coach the missing element?
No I wouldn’t say coach. I’ve been a very self-dependent person. When Atik (Jauhari) from Indonesia came, he really helped us in winning CWG gold and performing before London Olympics. We, of course, needed a doubles specialist, but after 2012 there was no doubles coach, nobody talking about that, and no words of encouragement on doubles. Funny that the national coach doesn’t even mention our name or say he’s happy for doubles.
Why are you and Gopi always fighting?
Time and again, I was thrown out of the national camp which was unnecessary. First of all, we don’t have any doubles pair, I’m the national champ since 2000-01, and you are troubling me. I was never given any explanation. I kept proving myself by winning tournaments, winning matches. Doubles is completely different. It needs different attention. Singles is doing better because they are getting all the support in the world. For the past 1-2 months, I’m hearing about how doubles is coming up because they’ve won International Challenges, I’ve set such a high benchmark, so what are you trying to say; basically dushmani sirf mere se thi? (enmity was just with me?) I just needed encouragement, I never asked for money or awards. I’m your No 1 player, you can’t trouble me.
Tell me about the pairing with Ashwini.
I was the No. 1 doubles player, whoever I chose would travel with me. I chose Ashwini. She was young and new to the circuit, not many people knew her. She looked petite but soon everybody was talking about her smashes. It was a process but we got there, within a year we won CWG gold in front of the home crowd. When she started playing with me, I used to depend on her smashes and her serve and nothing else that’s still her strength. Later on, because of exposure she got, because she was travelling with us, she got better. We were in Indian team from Day One of our combination.
Now, what are the 3 most irritating things about Gopichand, as coach, for you?
Irritating nahi, I wouldn’t say irritating. He just let me down. When he won All England, I don’t think anyone else was as happy as me or Arif Sir. We were playmates, we used to practice and train together. We looked up to him. When he came back from winning All England I went to the airport. I was amongst that crowd, and we were crying because we were the happiest. We thought now he will encourage us, now he will give us what he probably did not have. You know how emotional the crowds are when we go to receive sportspeople. I was there standing in crowd with everybody.
So where did it all go wrong?
I have no idea. I was just a player. How does it matter where I practice? When I win I win for the nation – Jwala from India has won a medal. Being a chief coach, he should only be proud, and encourage me because I am No. 1. I only blame him because he was the chief coach, he has played at that level. If the president doesn’t know about that level of badminton, it is his moral duty to teach or educate our president. World No. 6 ka value if chief coach doesn’t know, who will know? It’s very easy to say I am not to be blamed, haan maine yeh nahi kiya, maine woh nahi kiya..phir kisne kiya.. aur aapne hone kyu diya? And being head of system why did you allow it to happen? I was targeted from Day 1. In 2006, I came back from CWG, it was our first achievement in mixed team event where we won bronze after Diju and me had beaten World No 5 in team championships and that’s how we won the medal. I come back and I’m thrown out of the team.
What was the reason given to you?
No reason given. I still have the paper cutting. The only reason given was “I have already become old, and I have to give way to my juniors.” In 2006 this is, I was 23. I have paper cutting so nobody can deny it. Ok. The 2007 controversy – he said he wanted people in training camp. You thought you needed to play tournaments to get ranking points for Olympics. Both are valid points…How are both valid? Tell me how are both valid?
Because players get better in a camp, fitness-wise?
No, no no. My point is, 2007-8 was Olympic year. I am ready to train in the camp, I am ready to pay for my tournaments and go if you are not sending me in the team. Or if you are not sending a team. I will go from the camp, play a tournament, come back to the camp. How is his point valid – to just keep training? Because I wanted to qualify for the Olympics.
It worked with the singles guys now. Srikanth, Sai Praneeth, Prannoy all were held back. He didn’t allow them to play tournaments – they had to train at the camp.
What are you saying? They are not playing tournaments, you’re saying? They’re skipping all tournaments?
They skip some tournaments and train.
They are playing all the Super series tournaments. They don’t play because they can afford not to. I was ranked 25 I had to improve my ranking. Now that you know badminton, I don’t have to educate you about Olympics qualification. It starts in May. I was not allowed to play till August. 4 months, from being ranked 25, I went down to 50-59 and didn’t get entries in qualifying round. How does it help me? There is no justification.
Prannoy didn’t qualify for World Championships because he wasn’t allowed to play in Malaysia. If he’d played one round, he’d have qualified. But he said he did well in Indonesia because he trained at the camp.
He doesn’t allow Srikanth, Sindhu to play tournaments when they are in Top 8-10 where they don’t lose their points. Their game, their career is calculated, why not mine? I wanted to play Beijing Olympics. I wasn’t depending on BAI, I said I will pay on my own and go, then why stop me? Nobody in this world has the right to stop me when I’m playing a tournament at my own cost. First of all I’m national champion, I should be in the team. Okay if you are not sending the team, fine. I did not argue about that.
Isn’t it unbelievable in our country for being an Olympian I had to go to the courtroom for the right to play? And what was the reason given? I wanted her to attend the national camp. Gopi himself as a player never attended a lot of national camps. But he got all the privileged treatment as a player. He fought with association in 1997 for stopping his entries. So, when another player is going through this, being chief coach, he should’ve supported me.
After 2008 would you have joined the camp?
I am the only player till date who has played the maximum number of national championships and I’ve attended all the national camps – u-13, u-15, u-19 and seniors. When they started forcing me to attend national camps, I said ok, now I won’t attend. I will not. I will play tournaments at my own cost. Now who are you to stop me? How can you stop me?
The point of contention was training in the camp, not attending it. Do you think you would’ve achieved much more undergoing that kind of training? National camp mein doubles kuchh hai hi nai. Toh kya karna hai national camp jaake?
The fitness bit?
Kya fitness? If I was not fit would I have survived till now without injury? Fitness, fitness sab bolte hai.. jeeta hai na maine tournament? Kaise jeeta hai phir without fitness?
You could’ve won more with fitness.
It’s much better if you encourage me, na? If you talk to me, I will join national camp. Why not? You talk to my coach Arif sir. He’s been the chief coach. He’s always told me – national camps are important. But if you’re not encouraging me and I know this person is only trying to pull me down, would you go and work in that environment? It’s not like I just didn’t want to attend national camp. I will attend, but bhai, also I want to play tournaments because it’s an Olympic year. Who more than national chief coach will understand that I have to play all the tournaments to gain ranking points?
Your response to people who say that with better fitness you could’ve achieved much more, and that was probably the one thing lacking?
But I was not let to focus on my career. Fitness ki baat hi nai aati na. Pehli baat toh, I’m No. 1, agar tum mujhe sataa nai rahe ho toh, agar fitness ke baare mein tum bol rahe ho toh point it out, and let me not be too harsh. But mentally first set me free na (if you aren’t troubling me, if it’s about fitness that you want to point out). Then I’ll focus on my fitness more and more. But you did not let me think about it, because I’m only worried if tomorrow you’ll let me play or not. You can talk about my fitness, when you support me. But when I’m on my own, aur main chala rahi hoo apna kaam kaise bhi.. I also had to do a lot of running around to High Court, to the Minister, to the Secretariat ki woh mereko sataa rahe hai. I had to do that also.
These players who are winning right now don’t have to do that. They only meet the ministers to receive the reward. But I was meeting the minister to allow me to play. So there is a stark difference. Mere fitness ke baare mein, Arif sir ko bolne ka haq hai, (has the right to say) I get it because he supported me unconditionally. Mere parents ko bolne ka haq hai, main unka sunoongi. But people who pulled me down repeatedly, why should I listen to them? You encourage me, and then you tell me “Jwala tumhara fitness is kharaab.” Without questioning, I’ll do anything that a person tells me, if he encourages me. So no one has any right to talk about my fitness. And I’ve been No 1 for many years.
Do you want to be in an admin or coaching role?
Admin and coaching both actually. I don’t think anybody understands doubles in our country better than me. Not knowledge wise, but I’ve played at that level. And Indian way of doing things I know. Admin wise, attitude towards doubles needs to change. We also want to do lot of talent scouting. Numbers are just not enough for doubles. I’ve noticed Indian players should work a lot on tactics. Understanding of doubles is what they lack
What do you cherish most in career; any regrets?
Korean Open, beating World No 1, they did not expect me to play as well as I did. My defence was going well, when the guy kept smashing at me. I could pick up and place any guy’s smash. At All England, against doubles legend Lee Yong Dae, we lost 3rd game 23-21. Great match. CWG gold medal match was surreal, family was there. No regrets about choosing doubles. What I did was right, didn’t do anything wrong. I’m very proud of it – I’m a very proud person.
What are your off-court interests?
Off court I’m easy going. People say Jwala speaks her mind, but I’m very adjusting. I’m a very happy person. I was very different from other badminton players. I did not bring badminton home. I wouldn’t eat, sleep, drink badminton or talk about it to friends. I switched on and off easily, it kept me balanced. My other interest were watching news, politics, and women’s issues. I’m a proud feminist, people get irritated with that word.. but we need feminism in our country. I read a lot, follow greats on social media, I see if they’re right or wrong. I take a lot of criticism, I’m ok to have a dialogue. All sportspersons should be able to speak for themselves.
Will you and Gopichand be friends ever?
You won’t believe he’s kinda related to me. His brother is married to my niece. I come from a sprawling, big family. I will forgive for sure, but I won’t forget because my family went through a lot. If it was only me, I’d have managed. I’ve seen my dad cry… no daughter or son would like that. I give Gopichand credit for what he’s done for the country, the singles medals he’s getting is for the country, so I’ll give him that credit. But I want support from him for doubles, I would only wish and expect support from him. I don’t know if he will. I’m not vindictive by nature. But I’ll be cautious and I will protect doubles players for sure. I’m an optimist.