Ever since she broke into the big league, lissom Ashwini Ponnappa is used to being in the spotlight. But when she stepped into the badminton court earlier this week at the PDDU Indoor Stadium, she knew that the attention from the Indian badminton community would be even more intense.
After all, the Women’s Doubles specialist was embarking on a new journey as a Mixed Doubles player. Her first partner: her own Karnataka statemate K Sai Prateek in the 36th National Games here.
On Thursday, she took a successful first step, beating Delhi’s Rohan Kapoor and Kanika Kanwal in straight games to win the gold.
“I am very happy that we started with the National Games title,” 33-year-old Ashwini said after wrapping up their victory. “Incidentally, this is my first gold in the National Games,” she pointed out.
Ashwini has without a doubt been one of the finest doubles players in India, having successfully partnered with left-handers Jwala Gutta and N Sikki Reddy in her distinguished career.
After coming through a test by fire in the semifinals against Tamil Nadu’s VR Nardhana and Hariharan Amsakarunan, Ashwini Ponnappa and Sai Prateek were more at ease in the final with a 21-15, 21-13 victory.
Analysing the partnership in its early days, Ashwini said Prateek looks like a very confident player. “He hits the shuttle powerfully. He has a strong defence and has good court coverage. It is all about learning one another’s game and finding the right balance. Prateek is a quick learner,” she said.
The 33-year-old admitted the pair needs to be patient. “We don’t know one another’s styles yet and we didn’t have too much preparation. This gold will give us confidence,” she said.
Ashwini played the role of senior partner admirably. “I tell him to remain positive on the court. We held our nerves. It was not easy. It was our first tournament and, being the top seeds, there was pressure. He dealt with it well. This is what makes a player stronger,” she said, hopeful of forging a strong combination with Sai Prateek.
On his part, 22-year-old Sai Prateek is intent on making the most of the experience of playing with Ashwini. “I have so much to learn from her. I believe she is the best mixed doubles player,” he said “I grew up admiring her game. I am now lucky enough to play alongside her. She is always calm on the court.”
Talking about her career, Ashwini said her best moment as a doubles player was with Jwala Gutta. “We didn’t think or plan for any game. There was no match preparation as such. We just went into a match with a positive frame of mind. We were confident about one another’s game. It was a different experience. Jwala was a go-getter and very gutsy,” she said.
Ashwini said her partnerships with Sikki and Satwiksairraj Rankireddy were different. “We had to work on our game. It did not come easily. I tend to open up quickly. Now, I have become smarter with my game. I think I have been physically and mentally motivated in the last couple of years. In fact, I’m excited about my new partnership with Prateek.”