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Badminton

People find me very intimidating: Jwala Gutta

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COMING OF AGE: Jwala and her famous breakdown at the Commonwealth Games 2010. "I was so overwhelmed, " she says

Languor comes easy to Jwala Gutta, but behind that facade stands a confident, strong-willed and independent woman. It is a rarity in Indian sport. Any sportsperson who speaks their mind is often looked upon with suspicion, but the 28-year-old from Hyderabad, India's premier doubles player, will not change for anything. Excerpts from an interview:

When you talk about Indian badminton, there's this constant strain about you possibly not having got your due, of people not appreciating all that you've done all these years. Does that really bother you?

No, not really, I'm a different kind of person and such things don't put me down. I've been a very strong personality from the beginning. (But yes) When we reached the finals of the Super Series Masters, we were the first Indians to do that, and there was nothing, you know. And that did hit me. Initially, I used to win the smaller tournaments, I'd think and I would ask my dad why nobody recognises me. And he'd say say these tournaments weren't that big. But when we made the Super Series finals, even then there was nothing. I didn't know what else to do really - whether I should make the media happy, or the people happy, because I felt ... anyone would feel dejected. It could hurt you, but I kept going on. My father always told me that I am playing for myself, and whether anybody recognizes you or not, you are playing the sport for me, my family and as long as they are happy, I'm happy. That keeps me going and I still go on.

Where do you draw a balance where, in a culture like ours, firstly the recognition for the sport is so poor, and there's a whole lot of
other things to deal with as well?

I think I've been lucky that way, because my parents have always given their full support no matter what. Even when we were financially weak, my father was willing to sell our lands just to support my career. In my family, I was the first girl, and not many were happy in my family that a girl was playing sport for a living. But my father told me that you just do what you want and don't bother about the consequences. That kind of support really makes you feel secure. I guess that's why I'm strong because I have a strong family background.

You've maintained that China is China when it comes to badminton, but you come from a Chinese background too yourself. How much of that do you borrow in being what you are today?

I don't know... I think I'm way more Indian than Chinese. I've always believed that the Chinese are very hard-working. I think I'm a bit on the lazier side (Laughs). But even as far as talent is concerned, I'm more Indian. I don't think I have many of the Chinese genes in me. I really haven't thought about it.

So, what's the most Chinese thing about you?

I think my looks. People think I come from the North East, that's about it. But I feel my personality, my character, my nature, everything opposes that of the Chinese.

Being a doubles player, how do you channelise the strong individuality you possess?

I think it comes naturally to me, you know, to be a leader. I have this very strong grasping power, and I'm a very good observer, especially when it comes to badminton. That helps, I catch my opponent's weak points and mistakes very fast, and that I try to tell my partners and yes, I guess, it comes naturally. I haven't worked on it or anything, it comes...

You spoke of how you let Ashwini keep track of the rankings, points and the opposition. What's your role in your partnerships with Ashwini and Diju?

I don't get very nervous, I don't go under pressure. My role is primarily to calm them down, to make them stronger, to push them as hard as I can. If it works, it works. Sometimes it works really well, sometimes it doesn't. That's what I do...

You are a strong person and there is a feeling of intimidation that comes across. Do you sense it too? Steffi Graf spoke of the same problem in the 1980s, she sensed that people found her intimidating...

Yes, people find me very intimidating, but if you know me personally, I'm not like that. I'm a very friendly, a very happy go lucky person. You'll see me joking around with a 10-year-old to a 60-year-old, and I don't discriminate between friends. I'm a very happy person. Yes, I'm probably intimidating to people who come up with expectations from me. (Also) I can't be friendly to a stranger.

Do you have a different persona on court, which you probably shed off when you step off it?

I am the same person on court and off the court. I'm an aggressive person (laughs). If you have an argument, obviously, any argument, anybody always wants to win. So, I'm like that. I'm a normal human being, probably a little more confidence in whatever I do. I make sure that I don't do wrong things, or hurt anybody, so that makes me strong. I never lie, my parents have taught me never to lie, and some people don't like it. Who likes a person who always speaks the truth? There'll always be hundreds of critics and probably just ten of your well-wishers who know that, "Yeah, what you're doing is right. "

There was a very vulnerable side of you that came out after the Commonwealth Games when you broke down after the gold win...

Yes, everybody noticed, no?

What went wrong?

There was a lot that happened before that, which was uncalled for. I didn't expect that my own association would try to sabotage my performance. That hurt me, but I never showed it to anybody, not even my parents. I had never cried before. I hardly cry, I don't cry. If I lose, you know, like the closest match, Ashwini breaks down really fast, but I just can't cry. But that day, I don't know... I saw my parents (in the stands), my whole past just flashed (snaps her fingers) by when I won the gold, and yes, it just... I was overwhelmed.

Do you at times feel that you were made a pawn in the entire politics which involved big names?

Totally. Yes, that's the only way you can answer why it all happened, and why it's not happening right now. I was linked to such a big personality for no reason. See, all these Bollywood stars or all these famous personalities have this non-famous connection too, and that time I was not famous. I've known the Azharuddin family from around 2002, and you suddenly go on and link me to such a great personality. We had a very respectful relationship. He's a senior in sports and I really respected him, because my dad always gave me his example when I was young, really small and trained really hard. He used to tell me how hard that person used to work, and how he works on his abs, etc etc.
So when you're linked to someone like that, and the entire relationship is made out to be dirty and then when you come to know that the association had a big part to play, that was quite hurtful.

But you'd admit you, in a way, court controversy. Don't get me wrong when I ask you this, but there is this image of Jwala Gutta that automatically spells controversy. . .

No, I don't know... I'm always open to suggestions. If you think I'm wrong, just tell me that I'm wrong and prove it to me that I'm wrong. There are things I've said before, but I've said because of my personal experience and what I've observed in some many years of playing badminton. That's the only thing. I don't say it to hurt anybody, I just want to state facts so that my juniors and upcoming players are not affected. That's the only point I try to make.

The only thing I can't stand is injustice, or discrimination between anybody - men or women, even among women there's so much discrimination. The only thing I don't know how to ... How do I say it ... 'butter' up somebody, just to gain something out of it. That's something I've never learned in my life. I'm here right now in the Indian team. I'm here, people expect me to win a medal at the Olympics, it's because of what I have performed, and nothing else. I've not done any other stuff to see that people are good to me. People are good to me now, it's because of what I've said and I've proved it with my performance. And there's nothing more to that...

You've been at pains to explain that doubles in badminton is different from doubles in tennis. One gets the sense of staying in the shadow of
the singles players all the time...

See, the singles players always had somebody to look up to - like Prakash Sir (Prakash Padukone), Gopi (Pullela Gopichand). And, it's very evident that singles players are probably more motivated to play or to push themselves to perform, which (is something that) helps them. And it is because the importance that singles players get (that) motivates them.

If the same thing is done to the doubles - like right now we have two, three good junior players who want to play doubles and are taking doubles very seriously and at a very young age of their life. . . It is only now that we have started getting the support from the government. Now, the SAI officers call me and say, "Jwala, you are one of our Olympic medal prospects. " It is a big thing and I'm happy I'm able to change that mindset.

How important is it to look good on the court?

(Rolls her eyes in mock horror) I feel it's important. Because there are a lot of people watching us - either live or on TV. I am what I am because of this game, and it is my duty to represent this game in a very beautiful way. I might be a world champion, but if I wear shabby clothes and I don't look good and if I don't care, it's not a good sign. I don't think I'm respecting my sport also. And I'm not respecting the people who are watching me. I believe that most of the time, 'the first impression is always the last impression, '(and) because I won't be meeting 90 per cent of these people all the time, so I have to make a good impression, I have to dress well and look good on court.

Do the girls come to you for tips?

Ah, no. (Laughs) I don't mind giving them tips. But I make sure... I keep pulling aside a few girls who dress like boys, I tell them that girls should dress as girls. I think dressing up, feeling good about yourself also boosts your confidence. You are automatically more confident on court, when you know there are a thousand people watching you. When you know you're not looking good, you are not confident and you are more cautious about how you're looking. People start staring and start chattering behind your back...

But isn't the perception the other way around...

That's a myth, that's a total myth. I've done well, a tennis player like Maria Sharapova has won tournaments, so I wouldn't say that she is distracted. It's just that we like to look good when we are doing what we do.

How true are the rumours about you being offered Telegu films?

The truth is that there have been offers, but I'm not doing any movies right now (Laughs). For me it's just Olympics right now, that's about it.

Is that more because of the time constraints?

No, for me my priority is badminton. I can't give time to movies, movies need a lot of time. Probably after I've slowed down in badminton, why not? I don't say no to anything, I'm always open to new things. It could be a good change, maybe.

There's one question everyone's been wanting to ask you. After your divorce, your career sky rocketed, while Chetan Anand's has kind of stuttered...

I don't know. I think... See, everybody is responsible for their career themselves. I'm responsible for mine. Probably, I was a little distracted while I was married. You know how married life can be - you are married to the entire family, not just one person. And then for a woman, in this society, it is very difficult - I wouldn't say it hasn't happened - but it is difficult to do what you like after marriage. I guess after coming out of that, I was pressure-free. I'm totally dependent on my parents right now, and they take care of me. I don't have to worry about anything but badminton, so I'm able to focus a lot more. It has helped me, I don't know why it hasn't helped him.

Jwala, three big sportswomen in India have happened to come from one city around the same time - there's Saina, there's Sania Mirza and there's you. All of them are similar in a sense, yet very different from each other. You look good, and you've done well, one looked good but her career hit a roadblock, the third is totally focused on her game, where do you place yourself?


So, I'm Number One. (Laughs) I'm the Number One. You can give me the crown now. (Doubles up laughing)

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