‘I am more at home with doubles'


“I'd say my plus points are my speed, strength and stamina. Badminton to me is not work but a passion,” says Ashwini Ponnappa in a chat with A. Joseph Antony.

With the grace of a gazelle, she glides to and fro, more a swan on stage, than player on a badminton court. Not one ungainly shot blots her elegant stroke-play.

If Ashwini Ponnappa appears to be more style than substance, beware of her smash that, rivals the world over respect, if not dread. For those not in the know, her frail frame can be quite deceptive, or simply destructive.

Her flair for sport has evolved perhaps from the land of her forefathers — Coorg, known as the Scotland of India. Surprisingly, its sylvan and serene surroundings have bred a martial race, fiercely loyal to the land, its culture and tradition.

Popular belief sketches the ancestry of its people to Greeks who accompanied Alexander the Great, pre-Islamic Kurds and the Georgians. Field Marshal K. M. Cariappa and General K. S. Thimayya are but two of its well-known warriors.

If a dense moustache and booming voice typifies masculinity of its men, the women are demure and pretty. Ashwini epitomises the essence of both, not just with her film actor looks but the aggression she exhibits on court.

Built more like a ballet dancer, she can sashay her way to victory, as she partnered Jwala Gutta to the bronze medal in the badminton World championship doubles. Flitting to the net now for a feather-touch drop, she can retrace to unleash a thunderbolt with equal élan, if not with telling effect.

Ashwini's bond with badminton began when as a two-year old, she found an old racquet. Her mother Cauvery was in confinement, expecting a second child and to keep her hyper active daughter occupied, crumpled paper into a ball and tossed it to her.

When she turned six, Umapathy, her coach at Yavanika Youth Centre, Bangalore, predicted she'd play for India. On winning the Karnataka under-13 title, she was invited to join the Prakash Padukone Academy, where she came under the tutelage of the legend himself, ‘Vimal (Kumar) Sir' and ‘Balan Sir.'

In school, Sr. Louisa made her Games Captain, going by Ashwini's proficiency in sprints and long jump. When her father M. A. Ponnappa, a Manager with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) was posted to Hyderabad, Ashwini enjoyed the privilege of being coached by two Dronacharya awardees — S. M. Arif and Pullela Gopi Chand, besides Indonesian Edwin Iriwan.

“I am more at home with doubles,” she says, after she wouldn't persist with her short stint in singles. “I'd say my plus points are my speed, strength and stamina. Badminton to me is not work but a passion. Now and then a break is a must though, or I get cranky,” Ashwini adds.

“Jwala has been very supportive, especially if she senses I am nervous before a contest. She urges me to have fun and stay calm, although I've hit her with the racquet instead of the shuttle, during some awkward moments,” when recounting anecdotes from the court.

Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa in action. “Jwala has been very supportive, especially if she senses I am nervous before a contest. She urges me to have fun and stay calm,” says Ashwini.-S.S. KUMAR

At another time, one shoe came off. Ashwini's quick to count her blessings. “My dad and mum bear the brunt of my outbursts,” she says of her patient parents, who are quite liberal and encourage their famous daughter, around whom their lives and careers revolve.

An Assistant Executive (Human Resources) with ONGC, she has known no stress or tension off court, thanks to total backing by her employers. Equally generous has been sponsor, Li Ning.

Keen to acknowledge each one who has helped her ascent, Ashwini is grateful to mental trainer Aslesh Rao, performance enhancement specialist Deckline Leitao and Gavin Holt, the last-named gent grooming her fitness regimen at his Banjara Hills gym in Hyderabad.

Besides a footwear fetish, Ashwini's fondness for animals and pets becomes obvious through animated gestures and expressions. “I was pleasantly surprised to come across a litter of squirrels in our cupboard. In school, we gave a pet squirrel a grand burial,” she recalls.

“My mum has a way with birds. On one occasion she nursed a wounded parakeet at home for a few days, till it could gradually walk and then flew away from our balcony after it recovered,” Ashwini remembered.

“If not a badminton player, I'd be an interior designer, a job that would give me infinite options to explore things,” she reflects. “When on court, I prefer soulful music but it's the upbeat kind at home and in training,” her favourites ranging from Bob Dylan and U2 to Linkin Park and Greenday.

“Losing an Ipod on tour was definitely disappointing but fortunately I had backup at home on the PC,” says the B Com graduate of St. Mary's College. Her room, besides being her turf, is done up tastefully, as is the rest of the house. A life-size mirror, set in teak-wood, before which she decks up, bears the initials of her paternal grandfather.

With the poise of an accomplished model and her polished English, it may not be long before her face launches a hundred products. To qualify for the London Olympics is her top priority though.

“Our games look so tame before extreme sports,” says Ashwini, who's enamoured by the legendary Travis Pastrana. “There's no room for doubt, those sports driven mostly by self-belief. One slip-up can lead to a few broken bones or even death,” she says.

The quest for perfection could well be the common denominator for her and Pastrana. And as Jwala looms large on court, bold and optimistic, Ashwini shadows her as the strong and silent type, the duo combining well, all set to shake the shuttle world.