World Badminton Championships 2017: Ashwini Ponnappa, Sikki Reddy look to be more than dark horses
At the World Championships, Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy look set to smash their way into the reckoning and take doubles badminton to the level where they will no longer be considered a dark horse but a genuine title contender.
For years now, doubles badminton in India has been facing a lack of depth and consistency which proved to be the country's distress at the world stage. It was only in 2010 when the new women's doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa entered the international stage that there was a renewal in medal hopes at big events. The duo had the balance, sharpness and the ability to compete at the highest level on a regular basis. There, however, wasn't enough buzz around the country about doubles badminton despite the duo's bright start to their partnership.
Gutta and Ponnappa won gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in front of the home crowd in New Delhi and in the following year, the duo staged a phenomenal fightback to reach the semi-final and clinch a podium finish with a bronze at the World Badminton Championships. A string of good results saw Gutta and Ponnappa make the 2012 Olympics only to miss out on a quarter-final berth by just one point. Regardless of the result in London, the duo went on to bag several women's doubles titles for India including a silver at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
A lot have changed since then in Indian badminton, but even now, there is hardly any excitement about the doubles department. A host of shuttlers like Sikki Reddy, Manu Attri, Sumeeth Reddy and Pranaav Jerry Chopra have shown great promise, while newcomers like Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, Chirag Shetty and Shlok Ramachandran have impressed in the junior circuit.
New partner, same challenge
Heading into the 2017 World Badminton Championships in a familiar court of Glasgow, Ponnappa expects a same challenge but with a new partner in Sikki, who could be able to step into the big shoes of Gutta.
"Things have changed for me. At that time (2011 World Badminton Championships), I was younger, I did not have much experience as I do right now. I also had a senior partner who was established in the Indian circuit as well as the international circuit. So right now, it's a different situation for me. Sikki and I have just started off and it's just been a couple of months and I am the senior partner right now," Ponnappa told Firstpost.
The new pair has played in a couple of tournaments and shown good on-court understanding during crucial matches. However, they believe that the pressure won't be on them but their opponents at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow.
"We don't have any sort of pressure since I am playing with my new partner. Ashwini (Ponnappa) and I in the women's doubles and in the mixed doubles for the first time with Pranaav. I have played at the Championships but I'll be playing for the first time with these players," said Sikki, who also said that seeded players would feel the heat against the Indian duo.
The spotlight will be on Ponnappa, who had etched her name in the history books by becoming part of the first Indian pair (alongside Gutta) to win a medal at the world event. Also, the medal came after a 28-year medal drought at the prestigious event where the legendary Prakash Padukone had claimed a maiden medal for India.
When asked about the pressure to repeat the feat, Ponnappa said, "I have not really thought that way. We look for a fresh start in every tournament we participate in. It's the first Championships for me and Sikki (Reddy) together. So, it is important for us to go there and give our best."
At the mega event, the Indian pair faces an Indonesian-Malaysian pair of Ririn Amelia and Anna Cheong. "It will a tricky match. Indonesia is a country that produces a lot of doubles players. Every shuttler from that place is really talented and skillful when it comes to doubles. We've got to make sure that we remain patient on the court and go all out at the correct time," said the 28-year-old.
Furthermore, the unseeded duo will have their task cut out if they manage to get through the first hurdle as the high-profile Danish pair of Christina Pedersen and Kamilla Juhl await in the second round.
"If you are seeded in the tournament, there will be a lot of expectations on you to bring home a medal. We don't have any pressure as we are unseeded in the women's doubles. Ashwini and I will be facing world number two, Christina Pedersen and Kamilla Juhl of Denmark. The pressure will be on them to perform well and not us. We can focus on playing freely," said Sikki.
Eat, sleep, badminton, repeat
Ponnappa and Sikki reached the final of the 2017 Syed Modi International Grand Prix Gold and performed well at other tournaments but could not go the distance. However, Sikki feels that the duo has been training hard to combine well.
"If we can cause an upset, we stand a strong chance to fight for a medal. We both have been training really hard for the World Championships, including training sessions on Sundays. We have already played in Glasgow earlier at the Scottish Grand Prix event, so we know the condition of the courts and how the stadium is," explained the 24-year-old.
The duo has been putting in the hard yards on a daily basis at the Pullela Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad and here they have been reaping the benefits of being under the tutelage of Malaysian coach Tan Kim Her, who has been the central figure at the academy since his arrival in 2016. His work ethic and commitment to take doubles badminton in India to a higher level is highly spoken of in the international circuit. Ponnappa and Sikki believe that their hard work would bear fruit soon.
"There were changes in the physical training for the world event, more of explosiveness and speed drills are introduced so that we improve," said Ponnappa.
Speaking about Tan's training regime, Sikki said, "In the mixed doubles, I have been practising a lot at the net and on fitness. Tan (Kim Her) has been working on our rallies and long games in the women's doubles."
High on confidence, the duo looks set to smash their way into the reckoning and take doubles badminton to the level where they will no longer be considered a dark horse but a genuine title contender. A win over the Danish pair in the second round could possibly open the gateway for them and give them the spark they missed in big events earlier in the year.
It is football's greatest show. The pressure is intense. What keeps the footballers going? What do they eat? Mostly carbs and proteins to fuel their bodies
PT Usha is one of the greatest athletes to have ever come out of India and brags four gold medals and seven silvers at the Asian Games.
The other six SOMs are M M Somaya (hockey), Rohit Rajpal (tennis), Akhil Kumar (boxing), Suma Shirur (shooting), Aparna Popat (badminton), and Dola Banerjee (archery).