The steady buzz of noise inside the badminton court at Jamnabai Narsee school came to a sudden halt. Children skittled from one corner to the other and one of the two young girls playing suddenly lost her nerve to slam the shuttlecock into the net a few times in succession.
Ashwini Ponnappa had just walked onto the court — and even though she has a long way to go in her career, her stardom has its effects. She's young, pretty, well-spoken and most importantly, she plays badminton in a country where the sport has seen an unprecedented rise in popularity over the last few years.
"Of course I remember you, why would I forget?" she tells a girl, who has taken her chance to convince Ponnappa that they've met her before. And as soon as the Arjuna Award winner takes the racket in her hand, it turns into a magic wand. Children come to her one-by-one, and she holds their hands and teaches them to serve. The aura of the star is suddenly gone.
One of the major achievements in this journey has been winning a bronze medal with Jwala Gutta at the World Championships in 2011 -- the only Indian pair to win a medal at the World Championships. However, now, Ponnappa has parted ways with Gutta and formed a partnership with the 22-year-old Pradnya Gadre.
A lot has changed for Indian badminton since 2011 though. An Olympic medal and the emergence of several young stars has made India a power to reckon with on the international scene. India has eight players ranked in the top 20 of the BWF Rankings across senior and junior categories — something that deserves a massive hurray.
"Of course you could say that," she chirped on being asked whether badminton was now the No 2 sport in India after cricket — leaving in its wake games like hockey and football. "Especially with the rise of the number of players who are doing well for the country and the fact that we are getting a lot of coverage."
Clad smartly in white, Ponnappa, all of 23-years-old, gave out a few teasers to the media, but nothing too juicy — especially on her much publicised breakup with Gutta: "I will continue with the same partner. There will be no more change." And even when we tried to coax an answer from her later, she was adamant that she made the right decision. "No regrets," she said, a hint of a smile dancing on her lips — but with the finality of one of her killer smashes on court.
Ponnappa dismissed the notion that the Indian Badminton League will not work out because of the absence of Chinese players and she seemed excited about a venture that will draw top players to India. And she didn't seem unperturbed to admit that it would be good to have a specialist doubles coach, saying that P Gopichand probably had a bit too much on his plate handling everything.
Her new partner Pradnya Gadre is just a year younger than her, but Ponnappa made no secret of who the senior player was: "When I was with Jwala, she was the senior player, guiding me through. But now, I have to play the same role with Pradnya."
But despite being the senior partner, Ponnappa says that she will continue to strive to get better. Currently, she's working on her movement on court: "I'm working on getting more bouncy and light — because I have a tendency to stop moving on court and being really stiff. This will help my consistency on court."
Some eyebrows were raised when Ponnappa decided to part ways from what was looking like a brilliant partnership. But now that the decision is made, we asked her what exactly goes into choosing a doubles partner. "You've got to know where your strength lies in the partnership. You have to evaluate both yours and your partner's strong points. In the case of Jwala and me, she was really good at the net and I was really good at the back and that helped us. Even Pradnya is a very good net player, so that helps me a lot. You've got to be smart and have an understanding — for example I cannot play with someone who's good at the back like me, because then both of us will just try and keep getting behind."
Ponnappa pairs with Tarun Kona when it comes to playing mixed doubles and while she's known to dominate from the back of the court, the partnership is also helping her to form a better net game.
Ponnappa is ranked 27th in the women's doubles and 29th in mixed doubles and like any youngster who's looking to break into the big league, she gives these numbers a thought, but only up to a limit: "Rankings are important but if you keep thinking just about them, then you forget playing on the court. My ultimate goal would be to win a medal at the Olympics... and it would be lovely if it was gold!"
Regarded as the brightest doubles talent in India, what spurs Ponnappa's game is her powerful smash — one of the most powerful in the world. And even as some critics may suggest that her game is one dimensional, she has no intention of limiting herself: "That is my main strength and I shouldn't forget that. I should just hit, hit, hit and hit! Even though people know that I'm going to hit, but that's my strong point and nothing should stop me from hitting." Of course not, not when you can hit an overhead smash of 260 kmph (at the Paris World Championship in 2010).
If you're interested in knowing how lethal those smashes really are, then you should keep an eye on the World Championships — which start on 5th August.
Ponnappa was speaking at the promotion of Shuttle Express, an endeavour from IBL organisers to promote badminton in schools across six cities in India.