It takes wisdom and courage to part ways. Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa seem to have discovered equal doses of both in deciding to end their partnership in women’s doubles. India's most successful women’s doubles badminton team cited stagnation as one of the main reasons for their desire to separate, but there is certainly more than meets the eye.
Since their first separation in 2013, Jwala and Ashwini were partners by convenience rather than conviction. Results started to dry down and there was only so long that the pair could live on past results, including their glorious gold medal run in the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
The recent results have been a harbinger of an inevitable parting of ways – the duo have slipped from 14th to 26th in the BWF Women’s Doubles rankings in less than a year. Since the Indonesian Open in June, Jwala and Ashwini lost six straight matches, including all three encounters in the round robin stage of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Ashwini was constantly playing at the back of the court with the left handed Jwala hovering around the net. It is a combination that worked well for several years, but Ashwini may have begun to feel the strain of managing most of the workload covering the court.
The duo have a strong social media presence, with a combined following of over a million on Twitter. Naturally, it is a space that offers a peek between the lines, even as they insist that this was a mutually respectful divorce.
The expressive Jwala posted a telling image that suggests a difference in perspectives may have been at the root of their decision.
— Gutta Jwala (@Guttajwala) November 9, 2016
Ashwini, on the other hand, speaks about her desire to layer more variety into her adventures on the court.
Meanwhile, it appears that we may have seen the last of Jwala Gutta on the women’s doubles court. At 33, she does need a younger partner. With Jwala making it clear that she has no appetite to groom a youngster, it seems she will just focus on playing mixed doubles with Manu Attri.
However, the 24-year-old from Meerut has played most of his mixed doubles with Ashwini in recent times. So it will be an interesting switch for him to partner the left-hander from Hyderabad. He could pick up some valuable lessons in doubles from the crafty Jwala, which should help him prosper on the long road ahead.
On the other hand, Ashwini’s new partnership with Sikki Reddy is far more promising. It is interesting that the Bengaluru girl has opted for another left-hander to work with, presumably looking to benefit from the variations in angles and the ability of the duo to work the dimensions of the court.
The pair will also bring the average age of the limbs on court down by five years, from 30 to 25, a dynamic that could add fresh vigour and energy. Currently, the women’s doubles space is being dominated by the top ranked Japanese duo of Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahasi, followed closely by Chinese and Korean pairs.
The success of Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu has paved the way for a new generation of badminton stars and clearly the game is gaining depth in India. The coming together of Ashwini and Sikki does bode well for the sport in India as we begin to see the emergence of a wider cast of stars.
Sikki Reddy, 24, is a product of the Gopichand Academy and has enjoyed some success recently with her mixed doubles partner Pranaav Jerry Chopra. Her partnership with Ashwini could prove fruitful and exciting – both in terms of creativity and agility on the court.
It will also be interesting to see Ashwini work the court with Nandagopal Kidambi, the lesser known of the Kidambi brothers. Nandu is the elder brother of Srikanth Kidambi and the partnership with Ashwini will offer him an opportunity to carve a name for himself on the international stage.
The new partnerships have the potential to turn into a double delight for Ashwini, and both the player and her fans can look forward to this phase of her career with anticipation and excitement.