Commonwealth Games 2018: Ashwini Ponnappa leads by example to shepherd Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, Sikki Reddy

When India defeated three-time winners Malaysia in the final of the mixed team event at Gold Coast, not only did they create history by claiming their first-ever mixed team gold but also proved that the country has improved tremendously in the sport. India experienced the sweet taste of victory as they avenged their loss in the final of 2010 edition against tournament favourites and incidentally, with the same margin.

Commonwealth Games 2018: Ashwini Ponnappa leads by example to shepherd Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, Sikki Reddy

India's mixed doubles pair Ashwini Ponnappa and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy in action. AP

For decades, India had been succumbing to pressure against top badminton nations in Mixed Team Championships due to the lack of depth in the doubles competitions. That was one of the main reasons why they missed out a podium finish in the previous edition in Glasgow.

On Monday, before Ashwini Ponnappa and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy could even step out for the first match of the final tie in front of the boisterous Malaysian crowd in the Carrara Sports Arena, experts had put their money on a win for their Malaysian counterparts. But when the Indian duo took the court, they exceed expectations and came back from a four-point deficit in the decider to beat 2016 Rio Olympics silver medallists Peng Soon Chan and Liu Ying Goh. Satwiksairaj's booming smashes from the back of the court and Ashwini's deft touches at the net prevailed the Indian duo over the Malaysian shuttlers in three evenly-contested games.

The recently-paired duo didn't show signs of nervousness to give India the much-needed winning momentum but what caught the eye on that day was Rankireddy's backcourt genius that paved the way for Ponnappa to play freely at the net.

This wasn't the first time where Rankireddy had taken opponents by surprise with his exceptional strength. The 17-year-old, who also plays men's doubles with Chirag Shetty, made the world sit back and take notice of his incredible court-coverage and matured play from the backcourt at Superseries tournaments against the likes of Mathias Boe-Carsten Mogensen and World No 1 pair Kevin Sanjaya and Marcus Gideon.

"Satwik definitely has grown a lot over the last couple of years and this is just the beginning. He’s still young and has a long way to go. His weapon is definitely his smash, which is super hard. That automatically makes things so much easier for me to focus on the net and do my job," Ponnappa told Firstpost from Gold Coast.

"I'm definitely more confident playing at the net knowing that my partner has a killer smash from the back," the Red Bull athlete added.

Until May last year, Ponnappa paired with Buss Sumeeth Reddy in mixed doubles discipline. Looking at the results, doubles coach Tan Kim Her then decided to team the Banglore-born shuttler with the young Rankireddy at the 2017 Sudirman Cup, where the duo showed flashes of brilliance against higher-ranked pairs. "Coach Tan was the one who formed our partnership. He has paired me up with different partners and decided to try pairing Satwik and me together at the Sudirman Cup. The two of us played well and he felt we had the potential to do really good together and decided to form the partnership.

Apart from mixed doubles, the 28-year-old shuttler has another crucial role to play, this time of a backcourt player with Sikki Reddy in women's doubles discipline. The duo clinched bronze medal on Saturday evening with an impressive win over local favourites Gronya Somerville and Setyana Mapasa to add to India's medal tally. However, results at Superseries and Grand Prix events haven't been anywhere near noteworthy, but she believes there is more to come. "I feel we have a long way to go. We have just about started and have played less than 10 tournaments together. But happy we have had some good matches and some good wins make me confident that we are going in the right direction," Ponnappa explained.

The way Ponnappa refused to get bogged down by the occasion and the opponent's higher rank during the mixed team event indicated that she had now taken the task of being a mentor on the court. With two talented shuttlers in Rankireddy and Sikki, the veteran shuttler still has a lot more to give. "I definitely have a lot more experience than both my partners, which does help quite a bit. I know what to expect in tough situations and what could be done to come out of it. In mixed, fortunately, Satwik is really good as a mixed player and know how to play. Sikki does take charge at the net in women’s doubles, so that’s good too."

Despite missing out on adding another medal to her name alongside Rankireddy in the bronze-medal match, which was also her fourth match of the day on Saturday, Ponnappa was upbeat about the overall contribution of the talented Indian side. "The team has gotten stronger overall. We’ve got the top men’s and women’s singles players from India. Our doubles pairs have also improved tremendously, making the team quite strong overall," she concluded.

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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2018 13:32:29 IST

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