For many years now, Ashwini Ponnappa has been ending the season on a note of discontent. Having once reached the top echelons in her career, the lack of success in the last few seasons had been difficult to digest.
“The hardest part as you get older is training day in, day out, putting in the hard work and not getting results because then you start questioning everything,” said the 34-year-old.
But a decision late last year to partner 20-year-old Tanisha Crasto has brought about such a change that Ashwini is not just delighted with how 2023 has turned out but is already gunning for the next season.
“It’s been really sweet. It is exciting to be on court. I am in a space where you really want to work as it’s nice to see that work being translated into results. That is very motivating. I am really grateful that this year has been a year of change,” said the experienced shuttler.
Following a successful stint with Jwala Gutta where they won a World Championships bronze, an Asian Championships bronze, Commonwealth Games gold and silver apart from other accolades, Ashwini started partnering Sikki Reddy after Jwala retired in 2016. But the partnership never really took off as Ashwini and Sikki didn’t win a single tournament in six years, leading to their split post the 2022 World Championships.
After taking a five-month hiatus, Ashwini returned to the circuit partnering 20-year-old Tanisha in January. Though it took them some time to gel, the duo finally started delivering since June when they won their first title together at Nantes International.
“That title was crucial not just because it was our first but more so because we were on our own and had to figure things out. It gave me the confidence that we had the capacity to understand and switch our game style as and when needed. We didn’t have anyone guiding us from behind. That was very promising,” says Ashwini.
That event in France provided the new pair the spark to do well in tougher events as Ashwini-Tanisha reached the semis of Indonesia Masters in September before claiming the Abu Dhabi Masters in October. The pair haven’t looked back since as the combine reached the finals of three successive events at Syed Modi India International, Guwahati Masters and Odisha Masters, winning in Assam.
“Tanisha is young, agile, very fast at the net, has good anticipation and has an all-round game. Even my approach to the game has changed compared to when the partnership started. Back then it was ‘attack, attack’ all the time. It gradually changed from being all-attacking game to improving as a defensive player,” says Ashwini, who hails from Bengaluru.
“There was a shift mentally too from being a predominantly offensive player to realising that you’re not going to get points by just being offensive. You need a strong defensive game as well. Being conscious of the fact that we can’t burn our fuel so fast while attacking because you cannot always get quick points while attacking. That change in approach was important.”
With experience, Ashwini has become more patient as the two rely on each other to hold their side of their court. “You need a partner who gets the game plan. Tanisha is a quick learner and has been open to trying out things, get better and learn,” said Ashwini.
Ashwini has always been known for her explosive energy on court. Now in Tanisha, she has a partner who is perhaps even more enthusiastic, powerful and energetic. The understanding both on and off the court has led their ranking rocket since joining the order at world No.161 in January to No.24 now, making them the second highest ranked Indian pair behind No.19 Treesa Jolly/Gayatri Gopichand.
Coach Arun Vishnu always had the belief from the start that the pair would work together. He feels the mix of youth and experience has really clicked in their favour. Also, the fact that Ashwini is a natural back court player while Tanisha handles the front has complemented each other.
“Ashwini is there to guide Tanisha. Initially Tanisha wasn’t as mature as she is now. She wasn’t calm on court. Her lifts were flat. We worked on it over the year that has not just helped her but the pair too who have become very confident on court. Her lifts are much better, even from net,” says Arun.
Arun, chief coach Pullela Gopichand and the pair have spent several hours watching video footage of not just their opponents but analysing their own game too to rectify errors, improve their defence and excel at what they were already good at. “They are learning with each tournament. Ashwini is quite calm on court and has experience, power and attacking skills. Tanisha is quick, has a fast service, and is brilliant in interception. She has a good skill set at the net, converting a lot of points into winners at the net with her variety,” added Arun.
Having excelled at lower rung events, the duo is ready to take on the best at bigger events. With an improved ranking, the world No.24 pair will also get direct qualification into Super 500, 750 and perhaps 1000 events. While Ashwini said she is not thinking of Paris 2024 yet, the pair now have a very strong chance of making the cut as India’s only women’s pair at the Olympics. “Yes, they have a good chance. In the next four months there are 10 tournaments. They are capable of beating any pair on their day,” concluded Arun.
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