There are fewer electrifying sights in Indian badminton than Jwala Gutta parked at the net and whirring about her racquet – held in the left hand – hoaxing opponents. At times in the match for four, it was that busy fore-arm – wand-work of elbow upwards – that got doubles connoisseurs transfixed to the unconventional angles it managed on the flying shuttle. She thought fast, and wristed the bird quicker.
It was all very exciting, and when she courted success like the successive Commonwealth Games finals or the march to the World Championships bronze, Jwala Gutta seemed unstoppable. The left forearm made up for the rest of the languor as Ashwini Ponappa did her busy-bee darting on the back-court, but India had its own left-handed flair courtesy Jwala Gutta.
Sikki Reddy, 24, who steps into Jwala’s shoes, having decided to try out partnering Ashwini, knows all about the sorcery of left-handers. “Lin Dan, Jwala, Tanongsak – all left-handers have great strokes,” she gushes, chirpily describing the Thai Tanongsak, perhaps the game’s most bewitching current player to watch.
Sikki isn’t coy about her own bouquet of tricks playing in the fore court: “I have a strong forehand and lots of variations. The blocks, taps, it’s tough for people to anticipate left handers,” she stresses. She could do with Jwala’s racquet speed from the senior shuttler aced mixed doubles going upto No. 6 in the world with V Diju. But she’s quicker on her feet, as Ashwini Ponappa preps to make it work with another left handed partner.
It made sense – this like-for-like replacement – but it also helped that Sikki herself has struck some form in mixed playing alongside Pranaav Chopda. Ashwini’s excited about the minor tweak in the combine though: “The fact that she is left handed is good as I’ve played with Jwala who was southpaw. The difference however would be that with Sikki, we will be rotating a bit more, which would mean that I would move to the net as well and Sikki would cover the back too,” Ashwini says.
The Coorgi boasts a whip-smash, but could do with back-court running duties being shared with a limber partner.
It’s early days still, though women’s doubles – India’s steady successful event will be keen on taking forward what Jwala-Ashwini started. “We are just starting out as a pair, so still figuring out how and what will work in terms of our partnership. We are working on getting our rotation better. Playing tourneys this month will help, show us what works and what to work on,” Ashwini says, camped at Hyderbad currently.
Sikki Reddy has been on the circuit for a while but given India’s modest gains in doubles — no Indian’s made the Super Series final — she’s stayed under the radar.
A Hyderabad player – daughter of Krishna Reddy, a national level volleyball player – just like PV Sindhu – Sikki had a good run in singles as a junior making the Youth Commonweath finals where she lost to Saina Nehwal in 2008. An injury to the knee ended her singles sojourn, when she drifted into doubles.
At 8, she went for her first badminton summer camp – though she’d had a busy childhood dabbling at gymnastics, volleyball, swimming and athletics alongside. “Hands hurt a lot in volleyball,” she says sheepishly, “swimming, waters were too deep, and gymnastics was very painful all-round! Lots of kids played badminton, so it was fun and I stuck on,” she recalls. Brother Prajjun played till he was felled by an injury giving up the game.
Sikki’s own injury in 2009 had sealed her singles fate, but in doubles she’d pair up with other academy mates. With India getting Malaysian doubles specialist coach Tan, there was a late surge this season – her and Pranaav Jerry cracking the Top 25 in mixed. “Me and Jerry had played earlier, but now our games are improving and we’re targeting Top 10. But I want to split my effort 50-50 for women’s doubles too. Playing with Ashwini’s a great opportunity. Her experience will be great,” she says. Her training sessions too are divided to accommodate both.
She’s no mug with the smash – though it’s the left handed edge more than the sting to the stroke – and is keen on working on rotating back and forth. The Scottish GP will be the pair’s first outing. It was in Scotland incidentally that Ashwini-Jwala played out one of their more famous runs to a medal, a silver at the 2014 CWG.
Jwala is 33 now and post Olympics keen on resuming mixed doubles – which experts have stressed is the event she was always better suited for given her feistiness and layered guile she carries onto the court.
Ashwini has learnt much from her. “Her confidence and the sheer grit that she has is amazing. I’ve learnt a lot from her and grateful for the wonderful experience and partnership that we’ve had,” she said, a month into having sketched out a new pairing with Sikki.
Operating mostly without a dedicated coach, the duo could be said to have over-achieved. “The Asian Championship in 2014 where we won the bronze was a great tourney for us, we enjoyed and played some good badminton. The world championships of course and CWG definitely are my most cherished moments. But by and large we have had a wonderful partnership and that will definitely be cherished,” she said of Jwala.