Firstpost Masterclass: Legendary shuttler Jwala Gutta breaks down the technical and mental aspects of doubles badminton
Doubles is the fast and furious version of badminton where one's success also depends on one's partner. Seasoned exponent Jwala Gutta explains the technicalities of doubles badminton, and the challenges and mental aspects of her sport.
Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.
Badminton, in India, has been traditionally dominated by the singles specialists but that didn't stop Jwala Gutta from charting a historic course for herself as a doubles specialist. Jwala could have made it big in singles as well; after all, she once won the singles national junior championships, but the rebel in the Hyderabad-based shuttler was not ready to settle for the usual.
With her partner Shruti Kurien, Jwala enjoyed unprecedented success at the national level with consecutive titles from 2002-08. But it is her international exploits that make her not only one of the greatest doubles players but a badminton giant in India. Jwala has multiple BWF tournament medals to her name with the most notable being the silver at 2009 Superseries Masters Finals and bronze at 2011 World Championships.
She also clinched gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games with Ashwini Ponnappa. She once was world No 6 in mixed doubles ranking with V Diju, becoming the first doubles partner from India to be ranked in top 10 and later also attained 10th rank with Ponnappa in women's doubles.
In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, Jwala speaks on the technicalities of doubles badminton, challenges, and other important aspects of her sport.
There are reports that you were interested in playing tennis in your childhood, so how and when did you start playing badminton?
It wasn’t that I was interested in tennis alone, I was exposed to all the sports is what I meant. I started off with tennis, I played table tennis, played a little bit for school, played a little bit of volleyball also. My mother was a little skeptical of me playing an outdoor sport, so she said ‘Why don’t you try badminton?’ and that’s when I was introduced to the sport. My first and only coach was (Syed Mohammed) Arif sir and when we went to him, he told my mother that I was too young to play badminton. He suggested I try gymnastics and swimming and come back to me after 4-5 years, so that’s what we did, and then I went back to Arif sir in 1994.
So, at what age did you go back to Arif sir and when did you decide to take up the sport professionally?
I never took it (badminton) up as a hobby ever. It was always going to be a profession, it was very clear from my father. I was exposed to sports from the age of four, so much, that it was understood that I was going to take it up as a profession. From the beginning, I was very professional, I used to take my own water bottle, very few people were doing that at that time. Even now I see a lot of my juniors they don’t bring their water bottle and I am like, ‘when you are getting into a profession, you need to do this, you need to have your own towel’. I use to have the whole kit with me.
How’s that you started playing doubles badminton over singles?
I was a great singles player, actually. I was a junior national champion in singles and doubles, and then I was No 2 ranked in women’s singles. I was the only one who defeated Aparna Popat when she was at her prime and was unbeaten for 6-7 years. In 2000, I had a lot of seniors who were already established singles players like Aparna, Manjusha, Madhumita, Archana Deodhar, PVV Lakshmi, her sister Sharda. Then my contemporaries were Parul, Divya Ramesh…there were a lot of singles players. I started playing for India in 1999 and then I came for Uber Cup in 2000. I observed that there were already a lot of singles players and when it came to doubles, it was like retired singles players were playing doubles. But other countries always had separate singles and doubles players, they were taking it more professionally. So, I always wondered why we are not even trying.
Then when I was just 16 and 17 and was the reigning women's doubles national champion, Razin Sidek had come to India, a great doubles player who has won everything. He is a legend and he came down for a month and half long doubles camp and Arif sir was the chief coach. He (Arif sir) said, ‘Jwala, now that you are doubles champion, you have to go (for the camp).’ I said if I go for the camp, I will only play doubles and I am also a singles player, but still, I was asked to join. There I played with him (Sidek) and against him, he saw I was understanding the game of doubles which may of the Indian did not comprehend.
I was able to compete with boys also and I was a very hard hitter. So, that was one of the incidents where I thought I can take doubles seriously and not just wait for myself to retire from singles to play doubles. A lot of questions were put to me, ‘Are you sure?’, ‘you are spoiling your career’...only men’s doubles was challenging in India, women’s doubles was very lousy. So, I took it up more as a challenge and it had become a habit by then that every time people said ‘Jwala you could not do this, it will not work for you’, I was like ‘let me show you how it works’ and that’s what I always did. And I proved a lot of my detractors wrong that we can have good doubles players if we give them proper guidance. So, from 2000-01 I took doubles seriously.
There was extra-motivation for you to play doubles, but at the international level, we have professional singles and doubles players, separate from each other…
Technically it’s very different. Tennis doubles players play singles and vice versa but when it comes to badminton, doubles players cannot play singles because technically it is very different, footwork is different, strokes are different. The singles players might be world champions but they cannot play doubles. That is something that we (in India) have failed to educate our public about and that’s why we don’t take double seriously. They say badminton doubles is for lazy people. The speed of the shuttle is faster and quicker in doubles, the reflex needs to quicker in doubles. It’s fast, aggressive and when singles players have tried to play doubles, their defence really collapses because it (shuttle) comes real quick. There’s a very vast difference that people fail to understand.
How can a budding badminton player decide between picking up singles or doubles?
If you are picking up doubles thinking doubles is much easier, then you are wrong. Doubles is much more difficult. Internationally, Japan are fielding four pairs, China are fielding four pairs, Denmark are fielding 3-4 pairs, except India. India are fielding only one pair. Internationally doubles is very tough. You have to be super fit for playing doubles, it’s not an easy task to play competitive doubles.
What I observe when I see my juniors playing doubles today, most of them don’t understand the concept. They are wrong tactically; even the skills and strength are not enough. Very rarely we (India) had exclusive doubles coach. There’s no Indian coach who understands doubles, so there’s no guidance. So, many people are also inclined towards singles, it is getting all the attention. If a junior (player) has to take up doubles, you also have to understand the pressure and what you will not get. I took it up as a challenge. To take up doubles professionally in our country is challenging, so you have to be ready mentally.
At the highest level, players generally stick to the variant of doubles they prefer, whether mixed doubles or men’s or women’s doubles. What are the challenges if you try to balance both type of doubles formats?
Why I was able to do well in both is because I was very fit to play two events, although many people have questioned my fitness just because of the way my body is. But they don’t understand if I was not fit, I would not have survived so many matches and so many years. If you play two events at the international level, you have to be super, super fit, there can be no compromise.
It wasn’t that I was just an aggressive, strong player, I was a very clever player too. I knew the tactical points of doubles. I knew if I play a certain shot to a particular corner then where the return would come. I was very aware of what was happening around. And it’s not easy to switch between the two events. You have to be aware and alert.
A common instruction of doubles coaching is to pick the right shots. What do you mean by that?
In an interview, I won’t be able to tell what’s a right shot but I practiced my skills for hours and hours. We used to be like 20-30 people training together, I used to stay back to work on my skills for an hour and a half even after everybody had left. So, I am so sound in my skill that I can shut my eye and can still play my shot where I want to. I could play 200 shots without making a mistake. So, when I was in a tournament, my skill was so strong that, I could play wherever I wanted to. Singles or doubles, your foundation has to be very strong, because the game is evolving every five years. It is becoming faster, trickier, some games will be about aggression, pace and immediately next game would be about technique, with a deceptive player.
Should coaches be making the pair or it should be left on players to pick their partners?
In India, we take up sports as an individual choice. Government or associations don’t go and scout…When I chose Ashwini Ponnappa as my partner, (it was) because I spoke to her and asked her about her aim. We kind of had similar dreams; you need to have that similarity. You can’t keep pulling your partners, one partner cannot always be in stress…why coaches can’t choose pairs because in India we don’t have doubles coach...and if they really have to, then they also need to uplift the player. I don’t know why they come later and interfere when they are not promoting you enough…my coach, Arif sir, if he says what is good for me then I will listen to him because he knows my game and mind. In doubles, everything has to match, including your mindsets. The coach also has to be involved. If he/she is, then 100 percent, he/she can choose a partner for a player.
Talking about partnerships, doubles partner need a certain amount of tuning. What sort of things doubles partners do to improve their partnerships?
You need to be a partner on the court and off the court. We used to eat together, shop, walk together. We used to speak to each other off the court about who we are going to face the next day. If you are not good friends then you wouldn’t want to (partner) but sometimes you also need to give some space to your partner. Sometimes, when you lose, I may be okay but my partner may not be. So, you need to give that time to recover from loss…you need to be a friend because you have to understand that if one does well the other will also do well. Both of you have to go together, you cannot have a rivalry with each other.
In doubles, players share the position between front and back court. How do skills differ while playing in different parts of the court?
In back court, you need to have good smashes, good tosses. Always hitting hard is not important, where you are hitting is important…the basic thing which a doubles players need is a good serve and he/she has to be a good receiver. That’s very important. And mainly what a doubles player needs is drive, they need to know how to drive a shuttle.
How does the positioning of doubles players work while attacking or defending?
Doubles players have to move like the hands of a clock. Like how the hour and minute hands move together to cover the clock. Doubles players need to move in co-ordination, so that there’s no empty space on the court. If my partner is on left-hand side, then I need to be on right-hand side, if the partner goes up front then I need to be behind. So that there’s no empty space and our opponents could not displace us.
Doubles players generally prefer backhand low serve, however, you were known for your forehand serve, so why was that? And what is that doubles players look for in a perfect serve?
How confident you are about your skill is very important. I was very confident about my serve. Many people tried to change me. They would say, ‘how can you serve with a forehand, you have to serve backhand,’ and I always wondered why did they say so. After all, I was scoring points on my serve…Serving starts from below the waistline so basically we are already in a defensive position. So, serve has to be such that opponent is not able to take advantage…if your service is good then the opponent becomes defensive. A good serve is the one where your opponent is not able to attack.
What sort of analysis is involved in doubles, how strategies are made for a particular opponent?
How much ever you see a match, you would come to know the style of play of an opponent but how they will play on a particular day cannot be predicted. Through matches, you can gauge the strengths and weakness but sometimes it doesn’t work because you won’t always be able to play as you want. Sometime in doubles, it becomes very difficult because you also have to take care of your partner…I really believe in the present.
So, how is that analysis of the opponents done?
Indians were not so professional before…professional is when you sit with a sports analyst and you come to know (about your opponents) but that never happened till I played…we were completely on our own.
Doubles is a very attacking game and you need to be on the front foot always but can defensive play also be a strategy in doubles?
What I was taught from my coach was that offence was the best defence, but obviously when the reality kicks in, you need to be very good in your defence as well. In my later years, after a lot of matches and exposure, I think just before London Olympics (in 2012) till I played, my defence became so good that no body was able to break it. But I practiced for hours for it, it’s only practice. I used to practice with four boys standing in front of me and hitting at me. Yes, offence is the best defence but you also need to keep your defence ready.
Such an attacking sport means you need to very fit and need a lot stamina, so what was your fitness regimen like?
Arif sir believed a lot in fitness, so everybody knew that player training under him would be fit. We focused a lot on interval training like speed and endurance because Arif sir always said that badminton needs speed but you also need a lot of stamina….I use to run 11-12 kms twice a week. We did a lot of agility training, co-ordination training. To play badminton at the highest level you need to be as fit as an athlete. So, you do 400s, 800s, you do sprints. Badminton requires a lot of stamina and fitness.
How different is it from singles players?
We need a lot of speed endurance, we need a lot of explosive training, such as jumps. Weight training is very important, you need a lot of strength training. I use to lift 140 kgs in squats, 10-12 reps, five times.
Is there something like a co-ordinated fitness training with your partner?
That will be on-court training, on-court skill training with your partner. You will have a lot of co-ordination training, multi-shuttle training where the coach would be throwing shuttles at you and your partner at faster speed. So, we have co-ordination training on court. It is always good to train with your partner off-court as well. It is good to be competitive, you want to do better than the other person. When you know that your partner is working hard, so that sort of unity also helps.
Talking about injuries, what are the most common injuries for doubles players and how can they be prevented?
I never had any injury as such, but in my observation, doubles players are prone to knee and shoulder injuries as they need to jump really high and hit really hard. They have to keep up the strength and do good weight training, and for that, they need to train every day.
Let’s talk about the mental aspect of doubles players, how to players work on it and what is a good mental space for them?
You are not only facing two opponents, but you also need to co-ordinate with your partner on the court and if he or she is not in good form, you have to adjust. So, you need to be really quick. For doubles players, mental strength and awareness are very important and the mind has to be very quick. You need to go on the tour with an open mind because anything can happen, your partner may not be in good form or you may not be in good form. That’s why I always say that your basics need to be good, so when you are not able to play your best shots, at least you should be able to fall back on your basics.
What was your method to stay in a good mental space? Was it something like mediation….
I never liked to do meditation but I would suggest players do what they do while practicing. When you are practicing, you are doing things like talking to friends, watching TV, listening to music. Do the same thing. If you do not want to bring any extra pressure, do what you generally do.
What happens with our athletes is that suddenly when they go to tournaments, they want to meditate, they don’t want to talk to anybody. They are building pressure for themselves. So, do what relaxes you. If meditation relaxes you, start doing it in practice as well. And treat practice as a tournament; that is very important. Don’t think I am just practicing, so if I don’t give my 100 percent I have tomorrow. Treat every session as a tournament. Do what you like. No need to think about badminton 24 hours, eight hours you think about badminton, that is more than enough. That’s what I did.
When you are a professional there would be expectations, there will be good and bad times, insecurities. How do you deal with such things at the top level?
Expectations will always be there, even when you win nationals, the audience may be smaller. Expectation and pressure are meant to be there irrespective of what level you play. When you play state level, state association, players around you, your family would expect you to go and win…you should never take a loss very seriously, as in don’t get depressed. Mental awareness is very important.
If you lose, if you are aware of your mistakes, you can come back. It should not be the end of the world. Even when you win, you shouldn’t be super excited. You should know how to handle your losses and your wins also because even after winning next week there will be another tournament.
If you are satisfied and relaxed, you will not be able to prepare for the next tournament. And being a sportsperson, every week there’s going to be a new tournament. So, even if you lose, you must not lose your heart because you should know there will be another chance. Mental awareness, mental steadiness is very important.
How different are racquets used by doubles players than singles?
It actually differs from player to player. Everybody was like ‘Jwala now you are playing doubles you will need a heavier racquet’ but I was like, 'I don’t like playing with heavy racquet'. So, my racquet is the lightest racquet in the world. My racquet weighed only 70-75 grams and I was still able to hit very hard.
So, it depends from person to person, what their skill set is. For me, having a light racquet meant my reflexes were faster and strokes were sharper…you should do what you are comfortable with. It really depends on your strokes, that’s why I said you should be aware of your strength, capability and that would only happen if your mind is also aware and open. You cannot be tied down to anything.
Why was a heavier racquet suggested to you for doubles?
They say if you have heavy head racquet, you hit harder but I never believed in it. My smashes were pretty hard. At one point, mine was the fastest smash, I think in 2009. Mine was the fastest in women’s (badminton).
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