It’s time to break up the band.
Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa have done yeoman service as India’s premier badminton doubles combination for the last six years, but their stellar partnership appears to have run its course. Their loss to the Dutch pair of Eefie Muskens and Selena Piek, in three games, was their second of this Olympics and leaves them with no chance of moving on to the next round.
The Dutch exposed the Indian pair’s flaws, particularly their lack of movement, wrong footing them time and again in the course of winning the first game 21-16. Gutta in particular was guilty of poor footwork and tried to use her quick hands to defend whenever she was out of position, but that’s a band aid that was never going to heal the wound.
Communication was a problem too as the Dutch attacked the middle of the court, with Gutta and Ponnappa unsure as to who was covering what. There were a few glances exchanged between the Indian pair after losing points in this fashion
Leading 18-15, Muskens and Piek struck winners down the middle, out wide and down the middle again to seal the game.
Gutta and Ponnappa rose to the challenge in the second game, with Ponnappa strafing winners from the back of the court, but the problems remained. The Indian pair even got in each other’s way trying to return a smash as the Dutch drew within a point at 15-14. Gutta and Ponnappa showed great strength of character to pull away to win the game 21-16, but it felt like it would take something special for them to win the decider.
Instead, errors began to creep into their game as drop shots found the net and service returns were sent wide. The Dutch went ahead 15-10 as they continued to target Gutta, who was struggling to get into position on defense. India did pull the score back to 16-15, but they kept making mistakes at crucial moments. An error from Gutta led to three match points and when she pushed the shuttle long on the next point, that was the end of their medal hopes.
This was a very different result to London four years ago. Then the pair won two of their three matches, including a gutsy three-game victory over the higher-ranked Chinese Taipei pair of Wen Hsing Cheng and Yu Chin Chien. They ended up missing out on a quarter-final spot by just one point, despite winning the same number of matches as Japan and Taipei.
To be fair, this could be a temporary loss of form and that pair could bounce back. After all, they won the Canada Open just last year, but India need to take the long view here. Gutta is 32-years-old and has struggled with injuries. Only 18 percent of the 172 badminton players at these Olympics are over the age of 31. At Tokyo, four years from now, Gutta will be 36 and it is difficult to imagine her mobility and fitness improving to the point where it isn’t a liability in tight matches.
Ponnappa, on the other hand, is still only 26 and barring injury, there’s no reason she shouldn’t still be at the top of her game in Tokyo, but she’ll need a partner who she doesn’t have to cover for, and on this evidence, Gutta isn’t going to be that player.
Therefore, India should start looking for a new partner for Ponnappa now, especially since the country’s badminton cupboard isn’t exactly stocked at the moment. One idea, admittedly out of left field, would be to pair Ponnappa with PV Sindhu at international competitions. After all, the Williams sisters signed up to play singles and doubles in tennis and Sindhu used to play doubles as a young teenager. But that’s a call for the coach and the players to take.
Earlier this month, the best women’s doubles pair in tennis – Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis – decided to break up because they were not winning together anymore. Gutta and Ponnappa are India’s most decorated badminton doubles pairing ever. They have a Commonwealth Gold and a World Championship bronze in their kitty, the first Indian pair to do so. They should be cheered and respected for their accomplishments. But all things must come to an end, even for champions. The trick is in knowing when to call it a day.