She's an asset to any team

From left: Goverdhan Reddy, K. Venkateshwar Rao (both coaches), Insi Gutta, Jwala Gutta and Gutta Kranti.-PTI From left: Goverdhan Reddy, K. Venkateshwar Rao (both coaches), Insi Gutta, Jwala Gutta and Gutta Kranti.

“Apart from tournament and practice schedules, there's no planning in my life. I live life by the second and to the fullest. I'm never nervous on court, taking it one point at a time, game by game and match by match,” says Jwala Gutta in this interview with A. Joseph Antony.

A frantic father was rushing to be in time for the birth of his first child in Wardha, Maharashtra. At the hospital, a relative stopped him to say, “Don't worry, everything will be alright.”

On hearing this, the father feared both for child and mother but was much relieved to find a perfectly normal baby girl. Now, understanding the relative's apprehensions if not reservations about the new-born, the father secretly resolved to ensure his daughter outgrew all the male children in the large family. Over time, the girl grew to be Gutta Jwala.

She was born to Gutta Kranti of Peddapuliveru in Andhra Pradesh's Guntur district and Ye Lan, hailing from Tianjin, the port city close to Beijing, China. By the age of 10, Jwala could be seen perched on her dad's Priya scooter pillion, heading for the Lal Bahadur Indoor Stadium, Hyderabad where she came under the tutelage of S. M. Arif.

Her first triumph came in the girls' under-13 singles of the mini National championship at Thrissur, Kerala. Into the new millennium, the 17-year-old won the junior National crown too. Her stature grew on the international arena, till her latest achievement, the crowning glory of her career — bronze medal in the women's doubles of the World Badminton championships. In that accomplishment, she became the second Indian after Prakash Padukone to reach such a milestone.

Friends reminisce that Kranti, himself wrapped up in wool, ensured equal protection for Jwala against the early morning cold, when he would take her for practice. After one such session, she remembers waving to Mohd. Azharuddin in his Mercedes Benz zipping down the Begumpet flyover in Hyderabad. “But he didn't see me,” she said.

If the court is the crucible in which a player's career is formed, the home provides the hearth too. The four members are like friends, slipping effortlessly from English to Telugu and Hindi. “My mother and Insi (her younger sister) switch to Chinese when they want to gossip about me,” quips Jwala, who does not know her ‘mother tongue!'

“Insi is so fancy compared to Jwala,” the shuttler grumbles. Insi is incidentally derived from the first two letters of ‘Indo' and ‘Sino.' The siblings have their share of squabbles but it's never serious.

Kranti, being the lone male, is the butt of jokes but being the generous patriarch, takes them in his stride. “I've wanted my kids to be self-made, trying to convince them that it's not money that will stand by you in a crisis but values and good friends.” He initially thought of having a ‘wall of fame,' in their three-bedroom apartment but with over 50 international titles, he hopes to redo the house to fit in a ‘hall of fame.'

Afflicted with a low boredom threshold, Jwala would finish all her studies in school itself, one reading of a page enough to register the required information in her mind. So it came as no surprise when she cleared first and second year intermediate exams in 10 days flat!

So did she cheat?

“I desperately want to but I'm scared. On one occasion a helpful teacher showed me a page, but it was all a blur,” said Jwala.

Never deterred by defeat, she takes a day off on Sunday and skips practice on Wednesday and Saturday evenings. “Unlike other parents struggling with kids fussing over food, here we have to beg them to stop,” says Ye Lan.

The early days and expenses were rendered much easier thanks to Kailash Charan, a Hyderabad jeweller and the Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL), which has backed her from age 16. So were the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh (SAAP) and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) supportive.

Jwala is carefree though. “Apart from tournament and practice schedules, there's no planning in my life. I live life by the second and to the fullest,” she says. “I'm never nervous on court, taking it one point at a time, game by game and match by match,” is her philosophy.

“If I act in a movie, it will not be for the money but for fun, more as another experiment,” says Jwala.-G. KRISHNASWAMY

“Ashwini Ponappa (whom she partnered for the World championship bronze) is my best girlfriend,” says Jwala. “We communicate with each other wonderfully, so no ego hassles come in the way. I have a special equation with women's coach Madhumita Bisht, having played together.”

“Jwala has had her share of ups and downs,” says Kranti, alluding to her divorce from Chetan Anand. “But she has the ability to move on,” he noted. “An Olympic podium finish and a fetish to appear on the centrespread of Sportstar are two unfulfilled ambitions,” he added.

Until sternly warned by coach Arif to desist from playing other sports, Jwala was a spiker in volleyball, posted an unbeaten 98 as the lone girl in the Kendriya Vidyalaya Picket cricket team, playing badminton and tennis with her left hand, pool and table tennis with her right. She shares a fondness for horror movies with Ashwini, the new version of Omen being a favourite.

What about movie offers she's rumoured to be getting? “Knowing me, I'll never say never. If I act in a movie, it will not be for the money but for fun, more as another experiment. But badminton is top priority right now,” she affirms.

No better testimonial could come than from the legendary Morten Frost Hansen, with whom she trained for a few months. “Jwala is an asset to any team or country she plays for, her singles, doubles and mixed doubles performances being on par.”

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Indebted to her coaches

“As much as my parents have contributed to my growth in badminton, so has Arif Sir (pic, above), who has mentored me both on and off the court,” Jwala said in grateful acknowledgement. “The Dronacharya he has been awarded is not enough, for he has groomed more than 30 internationals. Money and ambition were never his priorities and he has so selflessly given to the sport and its players, even after his retirement.”

“The discipline he inculcated in his trainees was uniform for all, whether you were a beginner, district, State, national or international player. He punished me twice for being a minute or two late by making me practice more. But Arif Sir never holds grudges and is willing to help even those few who've drifted away from him,” said the southpaw, who stands just half an inch short of six feet.

“Above all Arif Sir made me overcome my fear. Right from the early days, when draws were rigged against me, he'd say ‘don't be overawed by big names.'” So he would pit her against the boys, a trend that continues to this day, since she has no practice partners to give her a fight. On the odd occasion, she was the solitary girl in the entire indoor stadium.

Jwala is also indebted to her early coaches Kattoju Venkateshwar Rao and Goverdhan Reddy. “In India coaches never get their due and the perfect example is Goverdhan Reddy. I wish I could build a stadium for him,” she says.

“Venkat is so fiercely loyal to Jwala that if I scold her, he gets upset and even argues with me,” says her father Kranti. Little wonder then that in her hour of glory — the Arjuna Awards ceremony — she invited her family and coaches. “Arif Sir was fasting for Ramzan and couldn't come,” recalled Jwala. So in addition to her father Kranti, sister Insi, she had Goverdhan and Venkat by her side, the duo only too glad to share her happiness.