Delight in doubles lane

Delight in doubles lane

terrific together Jwala Gutta (left) and V Diju have combined nicely to topple many an established mixed doubles pair. APValiyaveetil Diju portrays the remarkable story of a badminton player who had to traverse the rough road towards success. Hard work and patience have been his virtues besides plenty of skill and as the year draws to a close, Diju can look back with plenty of satisfaction, having made a mark at the world level along with Jwala Gutta in mixed doubles.

The Diju-Jwala pair has created much more than mere ripples on the world stage, winning the Chinese Taipei Gold Grand Prix this year before finishing runners-up in the prestigious season-ending Super Series Masters Finals in Johar Bahru earlier this month. A place in the top ten is their reward after a memorable journey.
“There have been lots of twists and turns in my career but the last two seasons were good while this year has been really great,” said Diju on his return from Johar Bahru, where he and Jwala lost to Danish pair of Nielsen Fischer and Christinna Pedersen in the summit clash.
“We never thought we can make it that big. It was my dream to play in the Super Series Masters but when you learn that only the top eight in the world can play there, then you feel you are not going to make it. To get a chance to play in the Masters was enough to make me happy but when we entered the final it was a dream come true,” said Diju.
“It took plenty of hard work to reach there. Finally we showed we are good enough to beat any team in the world. We need only to believe in ourselves,” said Diju.
Diju and Jwala have been almost unbeatable on the Indian scene, having won four National titles together. Diju has another title as well, in partnership with Aparna Balan in 2006. But on the international scene, the turning point for the duo came in the 2008 season. Starting the year as world number 93, they won the Bitburger Open and the Bulgarian Open, catapulting them to the top-20 in world rankings. The Chinese Taipei crown and a quarterfinal entry at the World Badminton Championships in Hyderabad this season helped them to capture the top 10 spot.
To illustrate how their progress has caught the attention of the badminton world, Diju described his meeting with Danish world No 4 Peter Gade during the Masters tournament. “It was after our quarterfinal game and Peter asked me ‘did you win the match?’ I replied yes and an amazed Gade said ‘really good’.
“The next day I ran him to him again and he asked me ‘what happened to your semifinal match?’ And when I told him we won, he was totally surprised and shaking his head said ‘unpredictable’. That shows how the top players view us now.”
Jwala said their performance was doubly sweet for her as she wasn’t physically fit at the start of the tournament. “I wasn’t fully fit right from the start of the tournament. So I didn’t expect to win any of the matches. Somehow I managed to hold on. It was a good win, big achievement for both of us. We gel together nicely and our partnership has worked wonders. I hope it will go on,” said the 26-year-old Hyderabadi.
Diju said Jwala’s fearlessness and mental strength have been real assets to the team. “She doesn’t fear anything. Be it Chinese, Koreans or Malaysians, Jwala is always confident of winning. Mentally she’s very strong and many times that has helped us to win crucial matches. Jwala is a leftie and that is another advantage, because playing against a left-right combination is difficult.”

Diju, who hails from Ramanattukara in Kerala’s Kozhikode district, started playing badminton after watching his brother Dinu playing. He, however, took the sport seriously only at the age of 12 and joined Sports Authority of India, Thrissur, where he learned the nuances of the sport from coach Balachandran Nair.

After failing to make it big in singles, Diju turned his focus on doubles, teaming up with state-mate Sanave Thomas. The combination clicked and Diju-Sanave took the National doubles title and the Hungarian Open crown in 2002. But Diju’s hopes to build a career in the sport were almost shattered when the pair was split to make room for Rupesh Kumar, with Diju being asked to play with Jaseel Ismail. “We (Diju-Jaseel) failed to click but Sanave-Rupesh were brilliant. I had no problems about it as they were really good doubles players.”

“I continued with Jaseel for a few years but the turning point came in 2006 when Vimal Kumar sir (then the National coach) asked me to team up with Jwala. We won the bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne 2006 and then picked up the SAF Games gold in the same year. Finally, I was getting rewarded for my patience.”
The progress has been steady since then, with financial rewards too coming in.  “I got USD 10,000 (approx 5 lakhs) as runner-up in Malaysia. We have signed with Chinese sponsors Li Ning and will be officially joining them from January  next year. I never thought that I could earn good money from badminton. It shows the sport is developing,” said Diju, who is employed with ONGC, Chennai, as HR manager.

Diju’s commitment to the sport was evident in his decision to play in the All-India senior ranking tournament in Bangalore, even though it came at the end of a hectic season. “I came here just to give confidence to young shuttlers -- to show them that mixed doubles is as good as singles or doubles; to say to them that this sport does not lack in money or fame. If you want to develop any sport you need the co-operation of top players. Badminton gave me the things which I have now and I just wanted to give something back for its development,” said Diju, who eventually had to pull out of the Bangalore event due to a back injury in the semifinals.

Doubles and mixed doubles often fail to get priority in India but Diju felt it was time the attitude changed. “A good singles player cannot become a good doubles player nor a mixed doubles shuttler. All three are totally different. My humble advice for the youngsters is that they should know where their potential is. If you are not clicking in singles, try doubles or mixed doubles. Talk to people who know the game better and then decide on your future. Don’t get disheartened,” said Diju.

Diju and Jwala have some unfinished business now, with the Commonwealth Games and the London Olympics coming up. “I have achieved nothing compared to many other players. Our wish is to win a medal at the London Olympics and also in CWG. I don’t think it is impossible if we play like what we did in 2009.”

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