Against all odds, Ashwini, who teamed up with Jwala Gutta, fetched the country a historic gold in women’s doubles, the first by an Indian pair after badminton made its entry at the Kingston Games in 1966.
“The feeling is majestic. No words can describe the emotions we experienced. I feel great because CWG is a prestigious event. It means a lot to me. I am happy that my sacrifices in the last four years has paid off,” said Ashwini, who also took home a silver medal from the mixed team event.
The Bangalorean won several accolades for her hard work and positive attitude during the tournament but the real gain from the duo’s triumph was that it brought doubles into spotlight again.
“Surely, our triumph is a great fillip to doubles teams. Before our victory, Diju-Jwala (mixed doubles team) were the only doubles team getting some sort of attention,” pointed out Ashwini.
Delhi witnessed a capacity crowd on most days, with fans lapping up the pacy doubles action featuring flashy play, quick returns and sharp rallies.
“What we normally see is that people leave the venue after the singles matches, but in Delhi they waited to watch the doubles ties. So I think it’s a good sign of things to come. People in India are now interested in doubles matches as well. I am thankful for the crowd support. The feeling is just marvellous. It looked as if the whole nation was behind us. Each point was cheered as if it was a match-point which boosted our confidence,” said Ashwini.
To stand on the podium at the Siri Fort Stadium, Ashwini had to relinquish her singles dream. Ashwini’s singles failure, however, came as a blessing in disguise for her.
Ashwini decided to team up with Jwala after consulting with Vimal Kumar, one of her coaches at the Prakash Padukone Academy where the Kodava girl learned the basics of badminton at the age of eleven. Under the tutelage of badminton legend Prakash Padukone she soon got into the groove before making her mark in age-group events.
“I learned the basics of badminton from the PPBA. I am thankful to Prakash sir (Padukone) and Vimal sir,” Ashwini said.
With support from her father N A Ponnappa, a manager at the Reserve Bank of India in Hyderabad and mother, Kaveri Ponnappa, who works for New India Assurance Company, Ashwini decided to move into the doubles lane. “My parents supported me all through my career. That’s why I am here. I am grateful to them,” said the 21-year-old.
In order to train with Jwala, Ashwini had to shift her base to Hyderabad where she moulded her doubles skills under Indonesian coaches and national coach Pullela Gopichand.
“As Jwala is based in Hyderabad, I had to shift there. I got a chance to train with a couple of Indonesian coaches. But the main thing is, me and Jwala are getting enough time to practice together,” said Ashwini, who had won the mixed doubles gold at the 2006 SAF Games, partnering V Diju.
Ashwini and Jwala kicked off their doubles campaign at the Singapore Open last year but failed to go past the first round. The two had come together after the break-up of the decade-old Jwala-Shruti Kurien partnership and there were questions whether India would be able to find a pair to fill the void created by the separation of the eight-time national champions.
With Ashwini still a rookie and Jwala concentrating more on mixed doubles, the pair took some time to settle down. The Bangalore-Hyderabad pair played an important role in India’s maiden qualification for the Uber Cup finals this year before claiming the runners-up trophy at the Indian Open in Chennai.
The Commonwealth Games gold then came as the icing on the cake. Considered to be one of the hardest hitters in the women's game, Ashwini enjoyed the finest moment of her career at the Siri Fort Stadium as she whispered the national anthem along with Jwala on the victory podium.
“We gel nicely. Jwala is very aggressive and doesn’t hold back anything. But she gives me the confidence to play my game and also gives valuable tips,” said Ashwini.
Ashwini didn’t really get a chance to celebrate the CWG success as she began her preparations for the Asian Games, beginning in Guangzhou, China, on November 12.
“The preparations are going to be as intense as it was for the CWG. With the presence of Chinese players, there will be extremely tough competition. The strategy will be to remain calm and give our best,” said Ashwini.