She is enjoying every bit of adulation that has come her way after playing a pivotal role in Indian badminton team’s first ever gold medal in a mixed team event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, but doubles specialist Ashwini Ponappa had serious “self-doubts” about being able to make a comeback post Rio Olympics.
Everything now seems to be falling in place for Ashwini, but it wasn’t so two years back, when she and Jwala failed to win a single match at the Rio Olympics and decided to end their seven-year-old association. She was down with dengue ahead of the Games and it plagued her performance ever since.
“It is nice to get all the acknowledgement now, but it has not been easy. After 2016 Rio Games, I started doubting myself. There was no power in my smashes, I couldn’t hit as harder I did earlier, it was just not working. Though I had recovered from dengue and physically I looked okay, but internally I was struggling to get back to my best. So, there were moments when I thought will I ever be able to make a comeback?” she said during an interview.
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She kept juggling between Bangalore and Hyderabad. Struggling with her fitness, she found solace at home, but in 2018, she shifted her base to Hyderabad after getting married to businessman and model Karan Medappa. Having the comfort of the family helped as she could focus on training more and it worked.
“I started training with a sports strength and conditioning coach in Bangalore, in December 2016. I felt better and played well in the PBL. It was that time when I was playing the singles, I played at Syed Modi. However again, my physical strength came down. So, I was crashing again and again, and it was disheartening. Luckily, I started feeling better in 2018 and we focused on training and not playing tournaments,” she said.
The 28-year-old Ponappa played in two events at the Gold Coast — mixed-doubles and women’s doubles, turning up each day on the court.
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She also added a bronze to her kitty in women doubles with N. Sikki Reddy, following her gold and silver medals with Jwala Gutta in the 2010 and 2014 editions, respectively.
“2010 was my first CWG, there was an eagerness. It was in Delhi and I was young. Nobody expected us to do well, but we won gold and a silver in a team event for the first time. In 2014 CWG, we were expected to do well and we won a silver. However, we didn’t win a team medal,” Ashwini says.
“So this time, it was different, I was playing with different partners and from being a young player in 2010, I had become a veteran now. Me and Satwik started in June and we won the first match in the mixed team final. Sikki and me also worked hard and we did well. If I would have lost that doubles bronze medal match, it would have been devasting for me.”
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She says that she learnt to put her absolute trust on Malaysian doubles coach Tan Kim Her, who is mainly responsible for the resurgence of doubles in India.
“With Tan Kim coming in, it is no longer an emotional thing. He makes and breaks pairs and it has worked. In 2017, I had three partners, I had played with K. Nandagopal, B. Sumeeth Reddy and then Satwik. He has brought so many partnerships, whether it is Pranaav and Sikki, Satwik and Chirag, so I trust him, and if he tells me tomorrow that I sould break partnership with Satwik, I would do it,” she says.
Ashwini said that she is looking forward to the Uber Cup and the Asian Games. “I am looking forward to the upcoming tournaments. We would like to change the colour of medal at Uber Cup. We have Saina, Sindhu doing well and so, we would be looking to do better. We have already won two bronze. However, the Asian Games would be a bigger test, it would be definitely tougher,” she said.
And what about the 2020 Olympics? “I don’t want to think about Olympics. Right now, there are smaller goals which I want to achieve. I have a lot to learn in mixed-doubles and we would be definitely playing more mixed-doubles event. I don’t want to just qualify, I want to come back with a medal,” she signed off.