About a year ago, badminton ace Ashwini Ponnappa decided to hit reset and start afresh. The prospect of her new pairing with Tanisha Crasto was both exciting and daunting in equal measure. It would need steady, patient rebuilding to achieve the heights that she had once attained with her former partner, Jwala Gutta.
By the end of 2023, Ponnappa and Crasto have three titles against their name—the Nantes International Challenge, the Abu Dhabi Masters and the Guwahati Masters—besides two runners-up finishes, the latest at the Odisha Masters earlier this month. From World No. 161 in January, and they are currently ranked 24th in the world.
“The partnership wasn’t just about playing matches. The goal was to do really well. Breaking into the top-25 by the end of the year was one of the targets when we teamed up, so I’m very happy that we’ve pulled it off,” Ponnappa, 34, says.
She had first noticed Crasto, 20, during the national camp in Hyderabad a few years ago. Her speed, agility and power had stood out, and once they decided to team up, Ponnappa realised that their playing styles complemented each other as well.
“She’s very good in the mixed doubles, really sharp at the net, while I’ve been known for my back court game. So it seemed like a perfect fit and we were certain of doing well,” she says.
However, their age difference of 14 years needed to be overcome. Besides, in terms of experience, Ponnappa is a former top-10 doubles player with bronze medals at the World Championships and Asian Games in her kitty. A year ago, Crasto was an up-and-coming teenager, looking to make her mark among the seniors.
Any teething problems were ironed out in a jiffy. Ponnappa fed off the youngster’s enthusiasm while Crasto was all ears, making the most of her partner’s experience and her own desire to excel.
“It’s nice playing with someone who is a 20-year-old to start off with. There’s all this energy and excitement that I draw from her. And since I’ve been training for so long now, it’s very different to see things through the eyes of a youngster who wants to do really well. It motivates me to train and work hard, while also having that mentality to learn,” Ponnappa says.
At their first tourney, the Indonesia Masters in January, they bowed out to the current World No. 5 pairing of Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota of Japan. It took patient building through the rest of the months, and it paid off with their first title, the Nantes International Challenge in June.
“To me, that was the most important win. One of the main reasons was because we were travelling on our own. What stands out is the way we dealt with different match situations and how we were capable of changing strategies when some things didn’t work. And of course, it was special since it was our first international win together,” she recalls.
There were heartbreaks too, to go with the highs. At the Asian Games in Hangzhou, they were knocked out at the quarterfinal stage. And after beating the higher ranked pair Rena Miyaura and Ayako Sakuramoto of Japan at the Arctic Open in Finland, they went down to France’s Margot Lambert and Anne Tran in the next round.
“That’s a match we were expected to win, having beaten the Japanese. So the loss and the way we played was a big learning for us—how we went into that tie and what we could have done better. It’s one of those experiences that humbles you and makes you realise that you have a long way to go,” Ponnappa says.
Their consistent run of form started in October and ended with two titles and two runners-up finishes. More importantly, they were evolving into a better partnership with every match.
“There have been significant improvements over this year. We can regulate our pace instead of just going out hitting hard. Our defence has also improved drastically. And of course, the mindset while stepping out on court has changed,” she says.
Ponnappa, for her part, has been mindful about preserving her body that has survived the demands of an international career spanning over a decade. These days, she’s more aware about everything—from her rest and recovery routine, to the food that she’s consuming. It’s been critical, especially over the last three months when they’ve made deep runs at various events, a fine culmination of the 21 tournaments they’ve played since January.
“It’s tricky when you have continuous matches, a lot of learning over the past couple of months. Having a physio and a trainer with us helped immensely in the last few tournaments, given the kind of matches we’ve played,” Ponnappa says.
“But right now in India, there are so many people breaking the age barrier and doing really well after 35 years. That’s really nice to see, a huge motivation for me. So, I don’t think 30 years is what it used to be like—maybe 30 is the new 20,” she says, chuckling.
After a well-earned break celebrating the festive season with family, Ponnappa and Crasto have their eyes on the Malaysia Open and the India Open in January next year. The aim is to take on better competition and eventually make the cut for the Paris Olympics.
“As happy as I am to have achieved one of our goals, I feel like this is just the beginning. It’s important for us to understand that it’s not going to get any easier going forward. And we are ready to put in the work that’s needed to take us to the next level. The mindset is to keep improving and the results will follow,” she says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.