World doubles badminton champion Jwala Gutta emerged as a lone bright spot on an otherwise mediocre doubles scene in India. Her current success on court isn’t so surprising considering she aced the National Badminton Championships thirteen times until 2010. Just like her game, Jwala’s magnetism is at its peak and have earned her the affections of men and tabloid photographers everywhere. Sadly even after Arjuna award and gold at the Commonwealth Games last year, the sporting achievements of Jwala took a noticeable backseat to her rumoured association with cricketer Mohammad Azaruddin. In my chat with Jwala on her ultimate dream, she came clean on the issues plaguing her life.
Congratulations on being nominated for the Padma awards.
It’s a big feeling when my state recognizes me. To know that they think of me as deserving is a great feeling. I am honoured, really humbled.
Your name means flame and quite rightly you bring in a lot of aggression on the court
Yeah and it’s all good aggression.
When did you first step on to the court?
As far as I remember I have always been in to sports – probably from the day I was born. It was my dad who wanted me to be a sportsperson. I never picked up the racket as a hobby. I picked it up to be a professional badminton player.
I started with gymnastics and swimming as I was too young to hold a racket.
Quite unusual for a man from an engineering background
Although my dad loved sports, he couldn’t pursue it due to financial reasons. He went to do his MSc in Organic Chemistry. But he wanted to give me what he didn’t get back then. I started out with tennis but my mom was worried too much about my skin. However badminton is a beautiful game. So I have no regrets.
You started playing badminton when you were nine. Did you miss out on a normal childhood as a result of your training for the game?
Not really. That’s it’s something I chose for myself. My parents never forced me. The badminton court was my playground.
How’s the journey so far?
Adventurous and eventful. There were a lot of ups and a few downs. But I don’t get upset or depressed when I am down. I am an eternal optimist.
Any lessons learnt along the way?
I learnt that being a girl in this country is not easy. My dad never prepared me for the ways of the world. It was only when I turned 18-19 that I learnt it the hard way.
You are sport star and a beautiful one at that. How do you ward off all the male attention?
It’s all quite flattering actually. When men compliment me and talk to talk to me it’s all very flattering. I have to thank my mixed genes for that.
Doubles has never been India’s forte in world badminton. It was always the singles where players like Dinesh Khanna, Prakash Padukone, Syed Modi, Pullela Gopichand and now Saina Nehwal could challenge the best in the world. But you changed all that with your great pairing with Ashwini. What’s it that is working for you guys so fabulously?
Everything. To begin with we are very good friends. We encourage each other to play better and better. My experiences are also helping us. I am happy that I am able to do something that was never done. Now India is a force to reckon with in the doubles. Earlier when we went for team championships no one backed on the doubles teams. What’s also working for us is the fact that both of us are ambitious and fearless. We believe in ourselves and we are not scared of big names.
That’s very important in the game – your attitude toward your opponent, isn’t it?
Very much. I could see the fear in the eyes of the Indian players when they realised that they were pitted against Chinese, Indonesian or Korean players. I wouldn’t want to name them. The name of the country itself was enough to scare them off. I believe in myself and I also believe that these players are not invincible. That’s the attitude I step on the court with. And that really helps me.
What’s your biggest achievement so far?
It’s undoubtedly the world championship medal. No one expected it from the Doubles team.
How do you prepare before a big match?
I don’t think too much. I visualize myself playing very well. I warm up and also listen to a lot of music. Thinking too much builds up unnecessary pressure.
The Indian Badminton circuit is riddled with favouritism and internal politics. How do you cope with all this?
I have been a victim of all this. But somehow it’s never put me down. I have only played better and better. When I am not wrong I have nothing to fear. Playing badminton is my fundamental right. I didn’t pick up the racket for anyone else and on one helped me reach where I am today. So I am only answerable to parents and no one else. I speak openly when I see injustice. I don’t believe in buttering up people for favours.
Are you happy with the level of the game in India? What should be done to improve it at the grassroot level?
I am very sad to say that nothing is being done to nurture and prepare the second string of players after me. I am speaking only of doubles. We need a lot more local tournaments and sports camps in various cities.
What’s your dream and how close are you to it?
My ultimate dream is winning at the Olympics. I am very close to it.
You have an impeccable sense of style. How do you go about it?
I love dressing up. And who doesn’t? Makeup doesn’t suit me. But I love clothes, shoes and what have you. I love choices. I can never travel light. I represent my sports to people who meet me. No one should ever say that they met a shabbily dressed badminton player.
What’s your practice routine like?
I practice from 7 in the morning to 11 and then from 5 to 8 in the evenings.
Off late you were in news more for your liaison with cricketer Mohammad Azaruddin than the game. Was that tough?
It was! But my close friends and family knew the truth. I am an extremely open person. I have many famous friends but the media picked on him as it made their stories more meatier and juicier. That’s understood. When you are at the top people would want to pull you down. You can’t help it.
You were also termed a home-breaker
That’s quite crazy. Ridiculous actually. I am divorced. People spoke about a certain someone getting divorced because of me. But has he?
So are you guys on talking terms?
Of course. I have no bad intentions so why should I stop talking to him. I had nothing to do with anything. He has scores of women friends. Are you going to link him everyone of them? Ninety per cent of my friends are male. But they are not famous personalities. I can’t help it.
Do you still believe in love
Of course I do. I am still very young and I am confident that is someone somewhere for me. I told you I am an optimist.
This interview first appeared in M magazine, India’s finest magazine on men’s fashion, lifestyle and luxury