Jwala Gutta has always ventured unhesitatingly into unchartered territory on the badminton court, not the least when she paired up with V Diju to become the first Indians to vie for a title in the season-ending BWF Super Series Masters Finals eight Decembers ago. They had done their bit to re-infuse belief in the Indian badminton fraternity that no goal was too high to aspire for.
Of course, Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand had won the All-England crowns in 1980 and 2001, Syed Modi had claimed the Commonwealth Games gold medal in 1982 and Dinesh Khanna had become the first Asian champion in 1965. But when world badminton regrouped itself with the Super Series events in 2007, India was unable to make much headway over the first two years.
Jwala and Diju changed that by beating the Polish pair of Robert Mateusiak and Nadieza Kostiuczyk 21-19, 21-11 in the mixed doubles semifinals in Johor Bahru in 2009. The Indians lost to the top-seeded Denmark pair of Joachim Fischer Nielsen and Christinna Pedersen in the final but could draw satisfaction that they inspired their compatriots to aspire for greater glory.
One of her traits has been her mental strength. Having climbed the winners’ podium 14 times at the National championship, she knows that everyone works hard at realising their own potential and to ensure that the gap between potential and performance is narrowing all the time. But she also knows that not everyone wins all the time.
“I learn to treat victory and defeat the same and to enjoy my sport passionately,” she says. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I would place myself at 9. If I have crossed so many hurdles and done well on court, I don’t think I can give up anything soon. I enjoy playing. On court, all I am thinking is how to deceive my opponent, whether in practice or in matches. That’s it. I can switch off and switch on easily. I live in the present.
“The Commonwealth Games 2010 Delhi gold medal is a good example of my holding together under stress. I was going through a separation and all kinds of rumours had started about me. I was under tremendous pressure, having been dropped from the team earlier without explanation despite being the National doubles champion,” Jwala Gutta recalls.
“My personal life was under intense scrutiny. Also, I read comments in the papers that I was old and should give way to juniors. The media camped outside my home for 10 days. I broke down when I resumed playing a few weeks before the Games. Most other may have quit but I survived because I have been truthful with everybody. That has been my strength,” Jwala Gutta says.
She has a very confident response to a question about her responsibility when being an inspiration to others. “I always was a responsible and obedient person. Some may have a different perspective. I am very adjusting and generous person. To me, personality, the character of a person matters. I have consciously told myself that I will not give up on my principles, no matter what. I will not give up on my character for anybody,” she says.
Her partnerships with a number of players – Shruti Kurien and Ashwini Ponnappa in women’s doubles and with V Diju in mixed doubles being the prominent ones – is an indication of her ability to adjust with diverse players. “The sport helped me learn to think from the partner’s point of view. I try and understand my partners’ character and personality,” she says.
Indeed, with there being little scope of eye contact between partners during rallies, doubles play thrives as much on communication as on instinct and implicit faith. “It would be unfair for me to expect every one of my partners to adjust to me. I could take Diju for granted but I had to be careful with Ashwini, who was my junior. I had to learn about her and adjust,” she says.
In keeping with the philosophy of her birthplace, Wardha, Jwala Gutta insists that every achiever has a responsibility towards society. “There are a lot of champions but only a few legends. You need to be a good human being. It’s not enough to be a champion. After you have achieved goals, you have a moral responsibility towards society. If you are not doing that, you not a true champion at all. It is our moral responsibility to think about others in the society that we live in,” she says.
Now with a women’s doubles bronze medal in the BWF World Championships in London in 2011 and a women’s doubles gold in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010 besides several other achievements, the 34-year-old Jwala Gutta is on a sabbatical and closer to the end of her competitive career. Interestingly though, she says she can get back to active sport any time.
Whether that happens or not, she hopes to get her badminton academy off the drawing board next year. There is no doubt that she will continue to inspire. Not just doubles players.
Jwala Gutta is in her element when speaking about her life as a badminton player but she hits the nail on its head when she says her sport and life and not mutually exclusive. “What I learnt on court helps me in life. And, yes, what I am off-court, helps me in my badminton. It works both ways,” she says.
Of course, Jwala Gutta has many learnings from her own life, including 18 years at the highest level, spent in sport. But some surfaced during the course of a conversation with Zevenworld, Here, in her own words, is a list of Jwala Gutta’s gleanings from her career that you may find useful in your own passionate pursuit of sport.
Find a good coach
I spent more time with coach Arif sir than my parents since I would be tired and slept early when I got home each evening. A coach, as a teacher, plays a very important role in a child’s life. If coaches don’t teach the players the right values, including respecting others, who else will teach them? It is so important, especially now, when you see where our society is going.
Draw inspiration from everyone around you
I can’t pin-point one particular thing or person who motivated me on my journey. Obviously my mom and dad were my early inspirations. My parents never pressurized me to win. I was taught to be fair, to be useful to helpful to others. Arif sir came along when I started training at the Lal Bahadur Indoor Stadium. I drew motivating even from people who criticised me, ridiculed me, laughed at me and asked me if I thought I could play. Obviously, it pained me in my growing up years since it was difficult and hit me hard. Somehow, all that helped me be the person I am today. I learnt from my seniors, too. It is because of all the people around. It happened originally. Naturally.
Adjust to partners
I learnt to understand them and think from their point of view, too. Diju was older than me and I could speak to him as a friend. Ashwini (Ponnappa) was new to the circuit and a bit nervous when she came on the scene. I learnt patience and became more mature as a person playing with her. I reined in my temper and grew as a person.
Don’t give up your own identity
My father told me “Never run after fame and money. You do well and they will come after you.” In my case, it has been so true. I never played to become famous or make money. Badminton was a poorly paid sport not too long ago. But it was and is my identity. I played for my identity. I wanted to make a mark. It became a habit, like brushing teeth.
Learn to forgive
I learnt to forgive but not forget. It is because of my parents’ hard work I am where I am. They went through a lot. I learnt this ability to forgive but not forget from the sport. I am a better person because of this. I competed hard on court – Arif sir taught me that even my sister across the court is a competitor – but have been friends off-court with my competitors. I have grown as person and am growing in stature since I have fun and do what I want to the best of my abilities.
Complete formal education, stay abreast of developments
Education opens up your mind and the way you think. We have a lot of champions who are unable to think about what more they can do as a champion, unaware of their own potential. It is not right. It is important not just to graduate but education helps you read and see what others are doing and analyse that. Look at the tennis players. The way they are exposed to things in life. The way they speak about their opponents. It is not a good sign if athletes in another sport are looking only inwards.
Above all, don’t make sport an obsession, enjoy it
Badminton is a part of my life but I have taught myself not to get obsessed with anything. I would be happy when I win a match but get back to normal since another competition would be coming up. If I lost a match, I would not get depressed but analyse. No moping! I can live without it too. I wouldn’t go into depression if I didn’t get to play! That took pressure off my shoulders.
My dad (Kranti Gutta) and coach (SM Arif) taught me not to have extreme emotions. It became a habit. My father would always tell me “You just work hard and not worry about result. I will be satisfied if my daughter has worked hard. When you come home, your cheeks should be red! You be you.” I have been lucky to have great people around me.