Jwala is exactly what her name suggests - a flame. The unapologetically outspoken badminton star, who has delighted spectators from across the world with her unplayable jump smashes and breath-taking dives, has never minced words while raising her voice against the prevailing injustices in her chosen field.
The glamour girl of Indian doubles badminton scene, Jwala Gutta is a match for any model. More than that, what sets her apart from her peers is her courage to speak her mind. She never hesitates to spell out what people have been discussing in hushed tones. Her outburst against badminton authorities when she was denied a Padma Award had made headlines. She sparked a controversy by taking on the Badminton Association of India for the unfair treatment meted out to doubles players. Her feud with national coach P. Gopichand has also been well-documented.
“I will not wait and go about ‘begging’ anymore. I’ve decided to hang up my boots,” she said in a bare-all chat with Manorama.
After competing at the Rio Olympics, where you and Ashwini Ponnappa put up a disappointing show in the women's doubles event, you took part in only a single tournament. You have been staying away from the court for the past six months. Was your decision to end your career based on your age and the recent poor run of form?
Never. I’m 33 now. We have seen players in their 30s being successful in badminton. Many of the top players from China and Denmark are 30 plus. There were players like Pullela Gopichand, who had shown that advancing age has no correlation with diminishing returns in this sport. Our poor show at Rio Olympics could be due to lack of international exposure. When I was axed from the national squad, they disregarded the fact that I was the number one doubles player in the country.
You were the first Indian shuttler to make it to the top ten in both doubles and mixed doubles world rankings. You have also won medals at the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships. What went wrong afterwards?
I didn’t do anything wrong. There were deliberate attempts to ruin my career. I was thrown out of the national camp twice by Gopichand. When questioned the shabby treatment meted out to me, authorities claimed they wanted to infuse fresh blood into the system. If that was the case, where are the new players groomed by them? Was there a single noteworthy achievement in doubles at the international level after my ouster? When I was undergoing training at the national camp, Gopichand did not allow me to participate in tournaments abroad. It was alleged that I put on weight and was lazy in training. Even when I was not taking part in tournaments, I used to spend over six hours in court and at the gym every day. If my bodyweight does not affect my performance, what is the problem?
Is it a good thing to rebuke somebody of the stature of Gopichand constantly?
I don’t hold any personal grudge against him. I oppose his actions and attitude as a coach. Me and V. Diju had attained a top-ten ranking (in mixed doubles) long before Saina Nehwal or P. V. Sindhu could achieve that feat. But doubles players have always been given a 'step-motherly treatment'. No individual, if he/she is a national team selector or a coach, should be allowed to run an academy. Gopichand’s training regimen is too harsh and grueling. That was the reason for people like Saina and Kashyap leaving his academy.
Rumors were rife about your relationship with former Indian cricket team captain Mohammad Azharuddin. You were even blamed for Sangeeta Bijlani walking out of her 14-year-old marriage with Azhar…
Both of us had decided not to get into such cheap controversies. Probably, those rumors spread like wildfire because of our silence. But I’m ready to speak out now. Such reports surfaced when Azharuddin decided to contest the elections for the post of president of the Badminton Association of India. There were rumors that it was me who nominated him for the post. Those gossips were being spread by people from the badminton association. They were looking to kill two birds with one stone. Azhar is still a good friend of mine. Our families too are very close. He is my mother’s age, something those gossip mongers failed to realize. His wife, who reportedly fell out with him, had campaigned for him when he contested the last Lok Sabha elections. But people conveniently ignored it.