NEW DELHI: ASHWINI Ponnappa and Tanisha Crasto drew loud cheers as they stepped out for their women’s doubles contest on Wednesday. Despite playing in familiar surroundings here at the KD Jadhav Indoor Stadium, they were forced to yield on the day. On paper, this is a first-round exit, which most shuttlers dread about. However, there were sprinkles of positivity in their defeat, that same positivity that has elevated them to status of contenders for the prized Olympic berth.
Up against Rawinda Prajongjai and Jongkolphan Kitiharkul of Thailand, a pair who’s ranked No 10 in the world, in the ongoing India Open, the odds were clearly stacked against the Indian pair. The duo, who have been making heads turn with their impressive results in recent times, did put up a spirited fightback but it was not enough to get over the line. Despite the crowd doing their bit to fire them up, they lost 21-5, 18-21, 21-11.
For someone who’s been playing at the elite level for well over a decade, Ashwini is quick to take mental notes about the day’s shortcomings. Having joined hands with Tanisha, 14 years her junior, the duo are still in the process of learning.
“I think we’ve got to get a lot more patient. We’ve made quite a few unforced errors, a lot from our hand and we can’t afford to do that at this level. And it’s really important to make sure that the shuttle is over one more time. And if we don’t do that, we’re just giving away easy points. So I think that’s a big learning,” Ashwini, 34, noted.
After joining hands early last year, they have surprised many with their rapid rise. While a few take some time to warm up to the challenges of new partnership, they have reached as many as five finals to climb the rankings. Just last week, they upset former world champions, Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara, to vindicate their growth. So it’s not a surprise that there’s a genuine sense of optimism between the pair at the moment.
“We’ve come a long way and it’s been great playing with didi (sister). I think she is one of the best doubles players in India. And my goal is to learn a lot from her. I think we’ve come a long way. From the first match in Jan (2023) till now, we’ve developed a lot of understanding in between us. Our communication is getting better. Moreover, I think through each match we’re trying to have more fun and we’re trying to enjoy each and every match rather than feeling pressurised,” Tanisha said, while reflecting on their promising association.
It is certainly a rich experience for Tanisha. Playing alongside a proven talent like Ashwini, who has had Olympic experience twice (2012 and 2016), she is marvelled by her senior’s ability to manipulate the shuttle. “I think that’s (age difference) what makes us the most unique pair. She (Ashwini) is one of the hardest hitters in the world and she is at least bringing me to that level. So, I wouldn’t say that there is any difference. In fact, I feel like didi (sister) is more agile than me at times. She’s covering almost the whole court and I think it’s great. It’s great playing with her.”
Tanisha’s youthful energy, meanwhile, is rubbing off on Ashwini. At an age when most players tend to slow down a bit, it’s evident that she is as driven as ever. “In this day and age, age doesn’t really matter. You had Greysia Polii (Tokyo Olympics gold medallist) win at an age post 33. I look up to Polii a lot because she’s a huge inspiration and she’s played multiple olympics with different partners and won her last olympics. So, I definitely look up to her. And of course, ‘The Daddies’ (legendary Indonesian pair Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan), who are going strong and doing extremely well... so, I don’t really see age as a thing,” Ashwini said.
Currently 16th in the Race to Paris rankings, Ashwini and Tanisha won’t have much time to reflect on Wednesday’s loss as they are expected to travel to Thailand soon. “Because it’s the race to the Olympics, we have back-to-back tournaments. You win some, you lose some, you just get back on court and you start training. So it’s back to work from tomorrow,” Ashwini said.
That work ethic and positive mindset is something that could elevate them to Paris Games.