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Ashwini-Tanisha bridge age gap as they close in on Paris Olympics berth

Even though she is already one of India’s most accomplished doubles players in badminton, Ashwini Ponnappa is as excited as ever to get her 2024 season underway at the Malaysia Open next week.

“Tanisha (Crasto) and I are really looking forward to playing in Malaysia. It will be our first Super 1000 competition together; I really hope we can get some good matches together,” says the double Olympic champion before she leaves for Kuala Lumpur.

Over the course of their year-long partnership, the Malaysia Open will be the most prestigious competition for Ashwini and Tanisha — the previous biggest being the World Tour 500 Indonesia Open, where they made their debut last January.

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For the pair, qualifying for the Malaysia Open is no mean achievement, made possible by a solid 2023 season that began with a quarterfinal finish in Indonesia followed by three consecutive finals, including the Syed Modi World Tour 300, and winning the Guwahati Masters in December. That tail-end push saw them finish 2023 as World No. 24, leapfrogging from 161st at the start the year.

“We got into Indonesia because of the notional points gained from my last partnership (with Sikki Reddy). But I’m happy that by the end of the year we could get a couple of wins. We picked smaller tournaments to work our way up the rankings, so that we can play bigger tournaments this year,” she says.

The year-end ranking not only took them to Kuala Lumpur, but also makes Paris Olympics — a distant possibility a year ago — a much more distinct prospect for them now. With only the highest ranked women’s doubles pair eligible for qualification for the Olympics (in the absence of two pairs being ranked in the top 8), talk of Ashwini and Tanisha making the Olympics has already started. They are the second highest ranked Indian pair after World No. 19 Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand, who have seen their form taper of late even as the latter recovers from a hip injury.

Ashwini, though, says she isn’t looking that far ahead.

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“I think everyone else is thinking about it more than we are. I’m being objective even now. If we are meant to be there, we are meant to be there. But the main focus is to perform well and get results,” she says.

While Ashwini would be making her third Olympic team should things fall in place for her in Paris, this Games would be a first for 20-year-old Tanisha. While the pairing has worked well so far, their partnership came about by chance and was sealed over a meal, after they had split with their earlier partners in late 2022.

“We had gone out for lunch together and I pitched the idea to her. Fortunately, she said yes. Of course, I was the senior partner, but it wasn’t as if Tanisha didn’t have any choice. Both of us wanted to play together. That was crucial,” Ashwini says.

Spotting potential

If she brought years of experience to the table, Ashwini says she saw plenty of potential in Tanisha.

“I’ve always loved the fact that she is brilliant at the net. She is explosive and has this fire and energy that I’ve always admired. Even before we paired up, I’d watched her in the past and felt she would be a great partner with me,” says Ashwini.

But while she might have had high expectations, it wasn’t until they actually got together on court that both of them were convinced that it was going to work. A narrow loss to three-time World silver medallists and World No. 5, Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota, in the quarterfinal of their maiden competition — the Indonesia Masters — was the first sign.

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A few months later, their first title at the Nantes Open backed that belief.

“Because of our ranking we didn’t have a coach in our corner. In the quarterfinals, we had a really tough match (against Japan’s Miki Kanehiro and Rui Kiyama). We went out all guns blazing in the first game and lost. We then instinctively changed our strategy and won the second. We were neck-and-neck in the third, and held our nerve to win. That’s when I realised that we had something special — the ability to change strategies independently on the court. We were on the same page. That was very cool!“ says Ashwini.

Ashwini reckons there are a few factors that make them tick. “I think we complement each other really well. When she moves, I move. I am naturally a back court player and she’s just very agile and aggressive at the net. She’s just a very natural mixed doubles player so she is very comfortable in the front court,” she says.

Age gap challenges

Ashwini has been part of one of India’s strongest women’s doubles pairs in history — with Jwala Gutta. While she hopes to be part of yet another such pairing, she admits she’s had to adapt to a bit of role-reversal in her partnership with Tanisha. While with Jwala, Ashwini was the junior, the 34-year-old multiple World and Commonwealth medallist is very much the senior in her partnership with Tanisha.

The age gap of 14 years brings with it its own challenges. As she approaches her mid 30s, Ashwini can’t push herself the way she might have at Tanisha’s age. After the Odisha Masters in December, for instance, she withdrew from the National Championships while Tanisha went ahead (although only competing in mixed doubles).

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“My body had gone through a lot and needed a break. I have to be a lot more mindful about how I treat it. I could have pushed myself but there is a risk of getting injured. My body was just hanging in. So, I needed to step away from the National Championships. Tanisha understands that. But while I can’t push myself like she can, there won’t ever be a moment where she will think that I’m not training or giving it anything less than my best. In general, I’m a hard-worker. So it won’t be that I’ll be just sitting around,” she says.

The differences between the two aren’t just physical. “There’s a big age gap between the two of us so it’s natural that we see things differently. I switch to being a mentor at times. While she is young, she has the capacity to listen and learn. If she needs help I’m always there. She is a quick learner, which is great. A lot of people can be told a lot of things but they can’t implement; it feels like a waste to keep trying,” says Ashwini.

Finding a balance

Ashwini says she’s tried to find a balance.

“It’s actually a little strange because the age gap is more than double of what it was between Jwala and me. There are times of course where I feel I might be giving Tanisha a bit too much advice but so far, she hasn’t complained. Whenever we can, we go out for lunch or dinner together as well. The good thing is that there are a lot of her batchmates travelling with her, so she has a lot of friends from her peer group. It’s important for her to have that balance. If she needs help or something that can help our partnership, then of course I’m there. But at the same time, she’s a young adult. She has the scope to express herself and not be dictated to,” says Ashwini.

But if Ashwini says she’s always there to give advice and share her experience with her younger compatriot, there’s plenty she gets in return as well.

“I actually see a lot in common between Tanisha and how I used to be at her age. We have a very similar capacity to learn as well as a hunger to get better. But there’s stuff I’m learning too. I quite like Tanisha’s approach to the game. Having played as long as I have had, there are times when you don’t always appreciate what you have in front of you. I like her enthusiasm for the game. I try to imbibe some of that in myself. Playing with someone like her who is starting out and enthusiastic, I try to feed off her energy,” says Ashwini.

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