PBL 2017: Has India found a third ace women’s singles player in Ashwini Ponnappa?

Spectators thronging the compact, 2,000-seater Koramangala Indoor Stadium for Bengaluru Blasters’ pool clash against Hyderabad Hunters rubbed their eyes in disbelief as the proposed team lists for Saturday’s needle Premier Badminton League (PBL) match were displayed on the giant electronic board, a few minutes before the start of the encounter.

It occasioned no surprise that world, Olympic and European champion Carolina Marin, scheduled to play the fifth and final match of the tie, had been nominated as Hyderabad’s trump. What caused eyebrows to reach for the sky was the name that appeared opposite hers. The home side had demanded that doubles specialist Ashwini Ponnappa play her first singles match in more than six years, at any level of competition – international, national, state, or even in the neighbourhood club’s tournament.

As matters panned out, it became vital that Marin win her match, for Hyderabad trailed 2-3 after four matches, and could only have overhauled Bengaluru if the Spanish left-hander won the tie’s final match, and delivered the extra point for the trump. And when she lost the first game against the combative Ponnappa, the expectedly partisan Bengaluru crowd went wild in anticipation of the tournament’s biggest upset.

Ashwini Ponappa celebrates a point during her match against Carolina Marin. Image courtesy: PBL via Twitter

Ashwini Ponnappa celebrates a point during her match against Carolina Marin. Image courtesy: PBL via Twitter

Of course, the world champion did eventually win at 9-11, 11-5, 11-8; and helped Hyderabad take the tie by a 4-3 scoreline. But she came off the court at the conclusion of the match, knowing she had been in a real scrap where no quarter had been given or asked for, and that she could easily have lost the encounter.

Marin was harried and hustled all the way to the tape by an inspired Ponnappa, who played as if she were out to show that she had discovered a brand new facet in her badminton game following the final break-up of her 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medal-winning women’s doubles combination with Jwala Gutta.

To put matters in proper perspective, Marin appeared even more taken aback than the spectators, by the Bengaluru ploy of fielding the 27-year-old girl from Coorg in the singles. No doubt she had prepared mentally to face Hong Kong’s Cheung Ngan Yi or even Ruthvika Shivani Gadde, picked up by the Blasters in the auction as their second women’s singles player.

All the mental rehearsals of how she would tackle Cheung or Ruthvika went out of the window, and Marin had to buckle down to face a player whose singles movement, strokes and style she knew absolutely nothing about. Had it been Saina Nehwal or PV Sindhu on the opposite court, the computer in Marin’s head would have gone into overdrive, and sputtered forth a stream of instructions on how to play the match.

Having Ponnappa, a specialist doubles player, on the other side of the net, resulted in a mental stumble. The Spaniard appeared flat, almost puzzled, and unable to raise herself out of the somnambulation she revealed on court against the darling of the local crowds.

To add to her discomfiture, the shuttles in use were very fast (officials have been ‘tipping’ the feathers while testing them, in an effort to slow them down), and Marin found it tough to control the bird. The flat pushes and clears that she tried at the start of the match stubbornly floated out at the baseline, as did the flat, hard back-breaking tosses that she often uses to send her rival scurrying all the way to the baseline.

With her staple shots failing to come off, Marin appeared bewildered, and was loath to use her lethal overhead drops, which she hits down the line and cross-court with almost the same action. She began trying to keep the shuttle down as much as possible, and simply played into the Bengaluru player’s hands.

Unlike other players, whose game Marin has dissected bare with her coach Fernando Rivas (who is doubling in this PBL as the Hyderabad team’s coach), Ponnappa was a conundrum she could not crack. The Bengaluru player was fit as a fiddle and swift on her feet, and did not allow the Spaniard the luxury of controlling the rallies which she does against almost every other player in the world.

Crack doubles player that she is, Ponnappa got the better of Marin in all the parallel hitting duels. She was also able to block all of the left-hander’s smashes and half-smashes on both flanks in such a way that the shuttle would just cross the net and drop dead, well before the service line, rather than travel further back to mid-court, where it could be easily intercepted by the net-rushing opponent.

The blocked returns made Marin reach the net a split-second late, forcing her to avoid the dribble since her antagonist was ready to intercept or tap it. She would lift the shuttle, which, with the diabolical drift in the stadium, kept travelling out at the baseline. And with every Marin error, Ponnappa's confidence soared, and she began believing that she could lower the colours of the world champion.

The first game went to the local girl even as Marin wrestled with the demons in her mind, to try and sort out this badminton chameleon. The world champion was much more like her normal self in the second stanza when she was playing against the drift and could employ her tosses and clears with impunity, and cut down on her errors.

There was discomfort again in the first half of the third game when she over-hit a couple of tosses and made mistakes at the net in her anxiety to keep the rallies short. But all the rich experience she has gathered over the past four years, when she has undisputedly been the world’s best female player, helped Marin breast the tape at 11-8, and deliver the crucial two points for her trump triumph.

It helped the Spanish star no end that Ponnappa, who was excellent from the baseline and middle of the court, made far too many errors at the net, which has never been her strong suit. In fact, she has always dominated play from the back of the court in her women’s doubles partnership with Gutta, but her suspect play at the net prevents her from being a really good mixed-doubles player.

All of which leads us to ponder over an important question: Does the result of this match mean that India has discovered a player who could play the vital third singles for the nation, behind Saina and Sindhu, in the next Uber Cup international women’s team championship?

Many badminton-lovers who watched the Ponnappa-Marin match went into raptures at the former’s performance, and felt that she could easily replace the likes of PC Thulasi and Tanvi Lad, who would normally be called upon to do duty in the third Uber Cup singles slot.

To all such enthusiasts, a word of caution would not be out of place. There are several factors which force the connoisseur of the game to conclude that a repeat performance from Ashwini against Marin is highly unlikely; and that Marin would most probably decimate the Indian doubles specialist, were they to meet again in a proper competitive international singles match.

First of all, the surprise factor. Marin is not likely to get caught unaware any time soon like she was in Saturday's clash. She would make an intensive study of Ponnappa’s style and game, and have her own gameplan ready.

Second, in a match that utilised the proper 21-point scoring system, Ponnappa would not stand a shred of a chance. The gimmicky 11-point PBL format, designed mostly for television audiences, gives the underdog a much better chance of victory, as has been seen from the manner in which players like Ajay Jayaram and HS Prannoy have knocked out players ranked well above them on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ladder.

Third, it must be underscored that Ponnappa is not really a singles player. Six years is a long time to return to singles play, and the skill sets required for the individual game are completely different from those needed for the paired event. Had Marin been able to employ the normal singles player’s toss-drop pattern of play, Ashwini would have been exposed very quickly indeed. But the stadium drift and fast shuttles did not allow the Spaniard to use the singles player’s bread-and-butter routine.

Finally, this match was played in a 'fun' tournament, the results of which are not counted when head-to-head meetings are considered. The players are not really excessively bothered by the results of their matches in the PBL – which leads to the suspicion, expressed to this writer by a former India international, that the Marin-Ponnappa match might have been rigged.

Stranger things have happened in international sport; and both cricket and tennis have been going through periodic investigations when the results of certain matches have been seen to be suspect. The pickings, in international badminton, are not anywhere near as rich as they are in cricket and tennis; therefore the offer of a fat purse under the table to ‘throw’ a match is not at all far-fetched.

However, it must be stressed that Marin is an intense and committed player who takes immense pride in her performances, and would not be swayed by any inducement to rig a match, or at least make it look much closer than it would normally be. Nine-time former national singles champion Aparna Popat pooh-poohed the suggestion that the scores and trend of the match might have been fixed.

Nevertheless, Ponnappa’s sterling performance against the reigning queen of the sport, in a form of the game that is alien to her, did give rise to  some late-night debate and discussion among Indian badminton-lovers, and consigned the proceedings of the five-match Hyderabad-Bengaluru tie to the background. At least for a day.

Results: Hyderabad Hunters beat Bengaluru Blasters 4-3 (Sameer Verma beat Boonsak Ponsana 11-8, 11-7; Satwik Sai Raj Rankireddy and Carolina Marin lost to Ko Sung Hyun and N. Sikki Reddy 9-11, 7-11; B. Sai Praneeth lost to Viktor Axelsen (trump) 11-6, 11-5; Tan Boon Heong and Tan Wee Kiong beat Ko Sung Hyun and Yoo Yeon Seong 5-11, 13-11, 11-8; Carolina Marin (trump) beat Ashwini Ponnappa 9-11, 11-5, 11-8)

Published Date: Jan 08, 2017 16:15 PM | Updated Date: Jan 08, 2017 16:42 PM

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