Gunning for the top slot

Making rapid strides… Jwala Gutta and V. Diju are fast developing into a top-class mixed doubles combination. “Our left-right combination has proved to be a big advantage for us. His backhand is my forehand, and my backhand is his forehand — that confuses our opponents,” says Jwala.-S.S. KUMAR

Jwala Gutta and V. Diju attribute their success to their long friendship. “We have been very good friends for the last 10 years, that can be seen in our attitude on court, ” says Jwala. By K. Keerthivasan.

While the focus of the nation is on Saina Nehwal, there are other Indian players too who are quietly making their mark in the international arena with some excellent performances. Like the mixed doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and V. Diju. The two are at their peak of their careers now, travelling all over the globe and taking on the best in the world.

Jwala and Diju, ranked No. 11 in the world, became the first Indian pair to reach the quarterfinals of the World Championships in Hyderabad in August 2009. Later that month, the two created history by becoming the first Indian pair to win a major international title, claiming the crown at the Chinese Taipei Gold Grand Prix. In December, Jwala and Diju made it to the World Masters final. A phenomenal achievement considering that only the top eight combinations in the world qualify for the tournament.

The Jwala-Diju combo began making waves in the international circuit following their comeback two years ago. The victories in the Bitburger Open and Bulgarian Open — both Grand Prix events — in 2008 provided the duo the much needed impetus.

Jwala and Diju attribute their success to their long friendship. “You can't be playing with enemies! We have been very good friends for the last 10 years, that can be seen in our attitude on court. Moreover, our left-right combination has proved to be a big advantage for us. His backhand is my forehand, and my backhand is his forehand — that confuses our opponents,” said Jwala.

Diju, considered one of the excellent doubles players and hardest hitters from India, said that “With Jwala at the back, I can play confidently. There is no doubt in my mind.”

The Jwala-Diju partnership happened by chance. The doubles coach, Hadi Sugianto, who had come to a camp in Bangalore in 2004-05, saw the two playing casually. He then suggested that they play in the doubles together in tournaments. He believed that one could complement the other admirably given their styles of play.

“In our first international tournament the same year, the Jakarta International Series, we won the mixed doubles title. It was really surprising and shocking. Our journey started from there,” said Jwala.

While the Jwala-Diju career-graph is clearly moving upward — the pair was ranked as high as No. 7 in the world in 2009 — the two feel that recognition from the Badminton Association of India (BAI) will go a long way in promoting the sport — in their case, mixed doubles.

“We are not blaming the media, or the association. All we are saying is that, please encourage and promote us. If the association recognises us, that's enough. The rest will follow. That should happen more often. We should get our due respect,” said Jwala.

“We are also performing at the highest level, but where is the appreciation?” the duo asked.

According to Jwala, in countries such as China, Indonesia and Malaysia doubles players are treated like demigods. “Every other country takes doubles seriously. You should hear the noise and commotion when a doubles match is on,” she said.

Jwala, the more vocal of the two, is of the view that unless there is an active management willing to promote the sport and bring in a lot of professionals, doubles players will be left behind. “I am not bitter when I say this. I am not fighting for myself, but the sport,” she said.

However, this hasn't deterred Jwala and Diju. The way the two played in the Yonex Sunrise-India Open Gold Grand Prix tournament in Chennai proved their commitment and dedication to the sport. They are determined to make a long-standing impact at the highest level. As expected, Jwala and Diju, seeded No. 1 in the tournament, emerged triumphant.

Jwala and Diju aim to make it to the top in mixed doubles. “That's our ultimate aim,” they said. “We are also keen to win a medal in the 2012 Olympics. If we do, that'll be really special.”

* * * Moving ahead

India's pride, Saina Nehwal, was quite surprised by the huge turnout for the women's final of the Yonex Sunrise-India Open Gold Grand Prix badminton tournament in Chennai recently. “I didn't expect so many people to come and see my match. The crowd was excellent. It's really nice,” she said.

The rise of Saina in the last three years has coincided with badminton's growth in the country. The number of international tournaments held in the country recently is a pointer to this fact.

India has hosted major tournaments such as the World Championships (Hyderabad, 2009), Badminton Asia Championship (New Delhi, 2010), Syed Modi Memorial India Open Grand Prix (Lucknow, 2009), India Open Gold Grand Prix (Hyderabad, 2008 & 2009 and Chennai 2010) and World Junior Championship (Pune, 2008).

“A nice pattern of growth has been set by the Badminton Association of India,” said Aparna Popat, eight-time National women's singles champion and commentator. “I think the growth has really been in the last three-and-a-half years. I don't see any downside now. The performance of Indian players in addition to Saina has been outstanding. Jwala Gutta and V. Diju in mixed doubles, Ashwini Ponnappa and Jwala in women's doubles and Rupesh Kumar and Sanave Thomas in men's doubles are all doing really well,” she said.

According to former National coach Vimal Kumar, the Government's financial assistance in view of the Commonwealth Games has helped the sport grow. “Things look certainly rosy,” he said.

Vimal said that the Sports Ministry has given more funds to BAI and that has helped the players to compete in international tournaments. “From 2004, the sport has made good progress not only in singles but also in men's doubles, women's doubles and mixed doubles. We need to sustain the momentum,” he said.

According to Siddharth Jain, former India No. 2 and French Open champion, Indian badminton is shining. “It's not only Saina who is doing well; there are lot of players like P. Kashyap, Jwala and Diju who are performing admirably. This I think is good for the sport,” he said.

Dinesh Khanna, 67, a former Asian champion and now a Government observer, said the scenario has changed quite a lot from his days when international tournaments were not a regular feature in the country. “It's more structured now. There are more international tournaments and players get more international exposure. A lot more training camps are held these days. In fact, in the last one-and-a-half years, players are training in camps regularly and taking part in tournaments abroad on a regular basis,” he said.

Dinesh said that during his time there was a regular domestic circuit, but taking part in international tournaments was limited. According to him, in the late 1950s and 1960s, top players from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand visited the country to participate in the Western India and CCI Open tournaments. The India Masters was a regular international event held in the country in the 1980s, but that fizzled out after three or four years,” Dinesh added.

Nandu Natekar, 77, six-time National men's singles champion, said that Saina had created a revolution of sorts and thanks to her the sport has reached a new high. “Today the players are not happy with small gains. Players like Saina are proof of that,” he added.

However, it's not all hunky-dory for the sport as there are areas of concern that BAI needs to look into. According to Vimal Kumar, while focussing on the top players is alright, enough attention should be paid to the grassroots level. “By grassroots I mean the centres supported by the Sports Authority of India and the Sports Council. BAI should ensure that there is a steady stream of second line of players,” he said.

Natekar concurred: “There should be a second line of players and to develop those players there should be lower grade tournaments like the Asian Satellite Series.”

“We need more ranking tournaments in the city as well as in the districts for different age groups,” said Siddharth. “The way forward is more academies with good coaches,” he added.

Aparna said, “The only thing we need to learn is to be more professional when it comes to organising international tournaments.”

K. Keerthivasan