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‘I had neither doped nor fixed a match’

Posted on: November 1, 2013

Badminton player Jwala Gutta has just won a match. Not in a tournament, but in an ugly controversy that has been playing in the court of the Badminton Association of India (BAI). After almost two months, Gutta will be back wielding a racquet in an international match. And she’s raring to go.

“Nobody can stop me from playing. I will be play in the Bitburger Open in Germany,” she says. The BAI, which is locked in a battle with her, hasn’t sent her name as an entrant from India yet, but Gutta says she is going to sponsor her own trip.

The fight with the BAI, clearly, is not over. Its disciplinary committee recently imposed a life ban on the gold medallist of the 2010 Commonwealth Games for allegedly delaying a match in the Indian Badminton League (IBL) in August. She moved the Delhi High Court challenging the ban. The court said she could play.

“Why this life ban,” asks a disgruntled Gutta, 30. “I had neither doped nor fixed a match.”

Gutta, who plays for the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board, met petroleum minister Veerappa Moily recently to garner support. “He has been following my case. He’ll write to the association,” she says with confidence. (Since the interview, the petroleum minister has sent a strongly worded letter to the sports minister on the issue.)

We are in a car that is heading towards the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, from where she is to catch a flight to Hyderabad. The captain of an IBL team, Krrish Delhi Smashers, relates the events that led to her ban. She’d objected when a member of another team, Banga Beats, was replaced because of an injury at the last moment. This altercation led to the match between the two teams being delayed. And BAI said that led to revenue losses.

Gutta asserts that she had to voice the concern of her team. “I was the icon player of the team. My owners told me that what had happened was wrong and they would not allow it. As captain, they asked me to take up the issue. Also, I have a signed letter from my team saying this was a collective decision.”

Her relations with the IBL have been fraught from day one. Before the tournament started, she had criticised the organisers for slashing her base price. “I had signed my contract for US $50,000 but they reduced it to US $25,000. I felt cheated.”

Though Gutta is careful not to say a word against the owners of her team or the corporate franchises associated with the IBL, she is open in her criticism of national coach Pullela Gopichand. “There is an IBL governing council consisting of senior badminton players, including Gopichand. If the corporate sectors are doing wrong, why didn’t Gopi object,” she asks. “He didn’t say a word in my support.”

It’s an open secret that Gopichand and Gutta don’t see eye to eye. Gutta has often questioned how the national coach could be allowed to run a private training school, the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy, in Hyderabad.

“All badminton players except Ashwini Ponnappa and I have been trained in his academy. He tries to dictate terms to players like us who have come up on our own. But he will always stand for those who belong to his academy,” she maintains.

Among those trained by Gopichand is Olympic bronze medallist Saina Nehwal. Is Gutta suggesting that the coach would have come out in Nehwal’s support had she had been in her (Gutta’s) position?

“She would have never been in my position,” Gutta retorts. She says that neither would Nehwal have been “victimised” by the association, nor would she have spoken out. “She would have reacted differently. But I can’t keep my mouth shut.”

Gutta’s differences with Nehwal have often been a subject of discussion in badminton circles. What is the animosity all about?

“You can ask anyone — I am a very friendly person. But friendship cannot be one-sided. There has to be a response from the other side too,” she replies.

Unlike Nehwal, who is a star of Gopichand’s academy, Gutta followed a different route to stardom. She started playing badminton from the age of four, encouraged by her Telugu-speaking father, a clerk in the Reserve Bank of India, and her mother, a pharmaceuticals exporter of Chinese descent. Trained by S.M. Arif, Gutta started as a singles player and won the national junior championships in 2000 when she was 17. Arif later suggested that she play doubles.

Known for being extremely competitive, her peers say she can also be unpredictable. There are days when she is extremely friendly, and days when she barely speaks with anyone. She wants to take charge of a game and often ends up dominating her partners.

She had earlier fallen out with her partner, Shruti Kurien-Kanetkar. Later, she had a rift with Ponnappa. The tournament partners broke up after the 2012 London Olympics but have come together again. Gutta says she will partner Ponnappa in the coming international tournaments.

But her co-players also agree that Gutta has the strength to speak her mind. “I would never say things to please others,” she stresses.

Calm and focused on the field, she partnered with Ponnappa and won a gold medal in the women’s doubles at the Commonwealth Games 2010 — the first gold medal that India won in the women’s double events in the Games. The same year, Gutta and Ponnappa were the first Indian women’s doubles pair to win a bronze medal in the badminton world championship. She played women’s doubles as well as mixed doubles at the 2012 London Olympics.

She complains that the badminton association takes the credit for the victories but does little for sportspersons. “It gets funding from the government because of our performance but doesn’t spend a penny on players,” Gutta, who ranks 235th in the world, says.

Dressed in a blue kurta and white churidaar, the six-footer has a fashionable air. She doesn’t have the dishevelled look that one tends to associate with sportspersons. On the contrary, her designer glasses and purse give her a stylish look, enhanced by her spotless skin and shining hair. Gutta has even walked the ramp on a few occasions, and performed an “item number” in the Telugu film Gunde Jaari Gallanthayyinde.

The shuttler, however, refuses to call it an item number. “It was a special song because the song had my name in it. Also, the movie was a superhit.” In the song, she is widely remembered for wearing a short blue dress. “People started calling me the girl with the golden legs,” she says with a laugh.

Her critics, however, hold that her interest in fashion and films has affected her game. Her world ranking was earlier six. But Gutta scoffs at the criticism.

“After giving 20 years to the sport, what’s wrong in being seen in advertisements or fashion shows,” she asks.

In these 20 years, Gutta has built a fortune for herself. From her rented house in Begumpet, she moved to a bungalow in the posh Banjara Hills in Hyderabad. But she insists that it has not been an easy road to success. “There was a time when my father’s entire salary of Rs 5,000 was spent on house rent. My father would have been promoted if he had taken transfers out of Hyderabad but he didn’t do so because that would have meant the end of my career in badminton,” she says.

Gutta is now the proud owner of five cars, including an SUV Volvo. What about the BMW that the media speculated had been gifted to her by cricketer-turned-parliamentarian Mohammed Azharuddin?

“I used to have a BMW. I have five cars in my house. Now will you tell me that all these have been gifted? This is ridiculous,” she says with a shrug.

But didn’t she share a special relationship with the celebrated cricketer and captain in 2010?

“The news is already dead and buried 100 feet down,” she says smilingly. “I know a lot of cricketers. I am friends with everybody. There is nothing wrong in being friends.”

It was around then that her marriage with Arjuna awardee and ace badminton player Chetan Anand started unravelling. The two divorced in 2011, and Gutta says she has moved on. “Divorce is part of life. Life doesn’t end with that one event.”

This is an off-the-court lesson that she has learnt. On the court, she’s learnt to be patient, she says. “I have learnt that it’s never all bad. I am very positive,” Gutta adds.

That’s called the sportswoman spirit.

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