Around the same time that Prime minister Narendra Modi declared currency notes of 500 and 1000 rupees as illegal tender, India's best known women's badminton doubles combo of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa also de-badminton-ised their partnership on court. But this was only the official declaration of their separation; they had reportedly decided to go their own way even before Rio.
This will be the second divorce the duo is going through. They had parted ways after the London Olympics in 2012 during which time Ashwini played with Pradnya Gadre. Jwala and Ashwini came together after a few months but could never repeat the form that won them the bronze at the World championship in 2011 or the Commonwealth gold in 2010. This time, they say the separation is permanent.
Before partnering with Ashwini, Jwala's partner used to be Shruti Kurien. The duo won six consecutive national doubles titles from 2002 to 2008, before breaking up. Even though in terms of personality, Jwala and Shruti were as different as chalk from cheese, Jwala's prowess at the net and Shruti's agility at the back of the court, made them a winning combination.
The parting of ways in 2009 was not exactly very pleasant but Jwala let her badminton racquet do the talking, forging a winning combination with Ashwini, going on to win the Commonwealth title in New Delhi in 2010.
This time, both felt that their partnership was stagnating. Their ranking has slipped to 26th in the world. The early round exit at Rio only cemented the decision to call it quits. In any case, most felt that Jwala at 33 was unlikely to continue playing women's doubles for long. Ashwini who is 27, would now play with 23-year-old Sikki Reddy.
Along with bidding goodbye to her jugalbandi with Ashwini, Jwala is also bowing out of women's doubles. She now aims to get back to mixed doubles, in which she had forged a winning combination with V Diju till 2013 and the duo was ranked 6 in the world. Manu Attri, India's doubles player, is likely to be her partner.
Even though Jwala and Ashwini and people close to them have tried to project an amicable parting facade, a tweet by Jwala on November 9, raised eyebrows. She tweeted: "Never fear ending a relationship with someone who didn't feel grateful to be with you in the first place.'' Though there is no indication who Jwala is referring to, inferences are bound to be drawn given the timing of the tweet. Jwala also is no longer following Ashwini on Twitter, another indication that the divorce was not pleasant.
What does this separation mean for Indian badminton? It will be time to test a new pair. Sikki has been performing consistently but her combination will mean Ashwini will miss the experience and on-court guile of Jwala. Besides, the style of play of Ashwini and Sikki is more similar to each other and it will take some time and effort to get used to each other's movement and calls on court. Ashwini will now have to play the role of the senior in this new combo pack.
Ashwini also is likely to play mixed doubles, where her partner will be Kidambi Srikkanth's brother Nandagopal. In many senses, forging this combination will be important for both players. It will give Nandagopal an opportunity to emerge out of the shadow of his more successful brother. Ditto for Ashwini.
In fact, Jwala and Ashwini are likely to face each other in mixed doubles when they play in the Premier Badminton League next year. While Jwala will play for Delhi, Ashwini will represent Bengaluru.
The importance given to doubles in India has always been a sore point with Jwala, with the mercurial Hyderabadi raising the banner of revolt several times against the establishment. On several occasions, she refused to practise at the Pullela Gopichand badminton academy, where all national players trained. She instead chose to be coached separately at the Lal Bahadur stadium by SM Arif, who was earlier India's national coach. It was only in the run-up to Rio that the Badminton Association of India got the services of a specialist doubles coach, Tan Kim Her from Malaysia, one of the best in the business.
The world of badminton doubles in India for long has been synonymous with Jwala Gutta, thanks to her combinations with Shruti, Ashwini and Diju. Armed with a never-say-die spirit on court, Jwala has the fire in her belly to sign off the badminton court on a high.
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