In her early years on the international circuit, a coach had once taken umbrage at Ashwini Ponnappa’s smiling countenance on court, and told her she lacked seriousness to compete. It had made the ace doubles player, with a Commonwealth Games gold and a World Championship bronze already, furious, that her naturally joyous ways on court could be miscontrued as lack of commitment to winning.
Not that she changed how she went about things — Why couldn’t one smile and still hit the hardest smash in women’s badminton, she wondered. On Tuesday, Ashwini Ponnappa smiled all the way to securing for India one of its most memorable wins at shuttle’s team championship — the Sudirman Cup.
Opening with a sensational mixed doubles win alongside Satwiksairaj Rankireddy against Indonesian mixed doubles Olympic champ Tontowi Ahmad (in a scratch pairing with junior world champ Gloria Widjaja), Ashwini bookended the famous 4-1 tie win against Sudirman giants Indonesia, sealing a straight sets women’s doubles win with Sikki Reddy against Della Haris-Rosyita Eka Putri Sari.
It’s badminton’s jolly luck that women’s singles player Tai Tzu Ying brings a refreshing, goofy persona to the court even while she works her deceptive magic on opponents with a disarming charm as she sits atop World No 1.
There’s little of the screwed-eyed intensity or scowling fist pumping in Ashwini Ponnappa, that’s so common to this predominantly Asian sport where players can appear as highly strung as their racquet tensions. She goes about the mighty difficult task of winning, while looking like she might actually be enjoying the game.
Not that her game is diminished when she affords herself a wry smile or two, after missing a shot, or even grins mid-rally as she brightens up gleefully in anticipation of a winner she’s setting up for her partner to finish. Against Tontowi-Gloria — a thrilling 66 minute joust against doubles mammoths Indonesia, a country with a proud tradition in the paired event — the 27-year-old Indian doubles ace had eclectic options in her serves, showed an improving low defense that’s so crucial to doubles, and a rhythmic game sense where the duo playing their first match ever at this big a stage, combined to win 20-22, 21-17, 19-21 in a shock upset.
Ashwini is known for her doubles partnership with Jwala Gutta and has metamorphosed into an equally deft player as her former senior partner, revelling in the responsibility of being the senior to Sikki Reddy and Satwiksairaj now. It was her reassured, relaxed stance on the court though — that rubbed off on teenaged Satwiksairaj, who too settled into the brutal pace of the rallies, making it look like two cool cats enjoying a breezy bout though.
“We didn’t think too much about opponent being Olympic champ or anything. We just wanted to play to our strategy. Neither of us took any pressure and we played freely. I enjoyed a lot in fact playing against the Olympic winner, and we were not afraid to play him,” he would say a couple of hours after his cross drive winner ended the Indonesian misery that had been building up for a while.
It was a rare sight in international badminton — an Indonesian bonafide champ reduced to nervousness, after the Indians peppered them with some hard hits but importantly refused to blink or be commanded in a rally throughout the encounter. Tontowi would botch his serves, miss his returns, smash into the net and fall under the heap of immense pressure that he seemed to have brought upon himself as the reputed player of the pairing.
It didn’t help that Ashwini was moving like a dream on the court, Satwiksairaj in lyrical tandem, working angles to breach defenses and thwack into empty spaces the Indians were creating galore. India’s foreign coaches Malaysian Tan and Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo, sat back and watched with admiration as the inexperienced Indian pairing went about their decimation, flying free as birds. There’s a little secret to Ashwini’s smashes — when she is truly relaxed on court (not tight, as the shuttle speak goes), her muscles tend to relax as well, and that invariably makes her smashes shoot faster than when she’s subdued and circumspect.
When she’s smiling, the rocketing smashes usually follow. It’s taken Ashwini Ponnappa almost 9 months to own that smile. She was felled by a nasty diagnosis of dengue before the Rio Olympics, which not only ruined her quadrennial but also creaked her bones like never before.
A Coorgi who prided herself in her fitness and strength, she would spend months after the Games staring at uncertainty — after her body remained weak as residual after-effects of Dengue lingered. “My body just wildly fell apart and I struggled to perform basic tasks. For an athlete you can imagine what that must feel like! For me, I doubted even that I would be able to even smash again. I had the will power, but the body just wouldn’t cooperate,” she says, recalling the physical anguish. It would be a long recovery, demanding patience and meticulousness that are hallmarks of her personality. She’d slowly regain strength, and three weeks ago when she was paired with Indian badminton’s most exciting doubles talent, there was renewed purpose. Against Denmark on Monday, India had bungled a tad.
“Today I just told Satwik we can beat them. We really wanted to win and played our heart out. We both hit hard, and we enjoyed ourselves I think,” she says. Ashwini Ponappa, chatty, talking lively eyes on court, serving up shuttles that whizzed. She kept smiling through the pressure points, and Olympic champ Tontowi Ahmad just didn’t know what hit him.