The white-haired bespectacled man has retired, but makes it a point to come everyday to the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium. Looking up at the tall woman beside him, he smiles. "You know, she came here when she was this small," recalls the former national coach, pointing to his knee. Jwala Gutta chuckles. "I was four," she says, eyes sparkling. Twenty-six years have gone, but for (SM) Arif sahab, Jwala is still that eager child, hungry to prove herself.
"It was decided that I would be sportswoman," laushs Jwala, sipping coffee in the gym she's built at the stadium. Back after a tiring week of training with partner Ashwini Ponnappa in Bangalore, there are aches and pains. "You didn't stretch," questions trainer Sarva, drawing a sheepish grin from the 30-year-old. "I don't like stretching," she confides.
Gutta at what she does best (Sanjeev Verma/HT)
"I tried my hand at tennis but the sun doesn't suit me. My mother (Yelan, who is Chinese) had played badminton. So there I was, playing on these courts," the 14-time national champion continues.
"Coaches teach you the right path because you're with them more than your parents. I'm lucky to have trained under Arif sir. We've had our differences but we're family," she says fondly.
At first glance, one can find Jwala intimidating. Standing almost six feet tall, the glamorous shuttler often finds her quotes in the headlines. Not one to shy away from controversial topics, last October she found herself at odds with the Badminton Association of India. "My father (Kranti) told me at a young age to fight for what I believed in. I've never learnt to butter up people," states Jwala.
Jwala follows her workout regimen (Sanjeev Verma/HT)
"Controversies don't bother me. I'm not the one who instigates them. But when your name gets dragged into it, you can't keep quiet," she says. "I'm strong because I've had great parental support." As a successful woman, does she feel targeted? "Yes, because I speak my mind."
Working out in the morning and playing in the evening keeps her fit. Since her Nationals win in December, she's become leaner. "I've been working a lot on my core." 2014 is an important year with the Commonwealth and Asian Games. Jwala and Ashwini will be defending the women's doubles Commonwealth crown in Glasgow. Is there pressure? "I have to prove myself again. It's like I was born to do this!" she chuckles over rice and chicken curry at her three-bedroom Banjara Hills home.
Spacious and sparsely furnished, it's exactly the way Jwala wanted it. "I don't like clutter." Maybe because her life is so uncluttered, her mind remains the same on court.
She began playing singles in the junior days but thanks to her strong smashes and physique, moving to doubles was a natural transition. "India's always had good singles players. But I started a trend. It's a misconception that doubles is for lazy people. In other countries, doubles is given equal treatment," rues Jwala.
In 2011, when Jwala and Ashwini won the bronze at the World Championships, the feat seemed like a fairytale. Expecting a good reception at the airport, she was shocked when no official came to greet her. "It was heart wrenching," she admits. "I had thought it was difficult to get sponsors in doubles because India was yet to achieve something at the international level. Today, I feel sad to think who will achieve what we have, after us," says the former world No 6 (mixed doubles).
Jwala munches on a corn-cobb (Sanjeev Verma/HT)
With controversies surrounding her, has she ever thought of quitting? "I can quit anytime. But then I'll be letting those hundreds of people down because of whom I've achieved all of this. The cooks, drivers, helpers who have made sure I only worry about my game. My parents, coaches… If I quit suddenly I would have wasted so many years of their hard work. I want to quit on my terms," comes the determined answer.
If one does a web search, there are a million results on Jwala's clothes, bags, shoes, likes and dislikes. Pictures of her in designer outfits are everywhere. "I don't understand this image thing. What's wrong in liking clothes or dressing up? In India, there is this image that if you dress shabbily, you are a serious sportsperson. If you care about dressing up, you aren't one. People are under the impression I lead an exciting life but honestly, all I do is sleep, eat and practice," says the woman who dislikes being photographed.
She wears her tattoo with pride (Sanjeev Verma/HT)
"Social events are kept for the weekend. I do have a life outside of badminton." Watching crime shows, chatting with friends, shopping, long drives, good food and reading Archie comics are some of her other passions!
It was Kranti who had instilled this thought. "Whether it's badminton or when I was getting married (to shuttler Chetan Anand in 2005), he said 'it's a part of your life, don't make it your whole life'. They divorced in 2011 which again, drew a lot of media coverage. "I learnt a lot from the marriage but we weren't growing as a couple. A part of me forgot that I too was a part of the sport. I was satisfied thinking that his victories were our victories," says Jwala.
Eyes on Brazil
After participating in the London Games, she got a 2012 tattoo on her back. Her goal now is the 2016 Rio Olympics. "If I get selected, I want to add the year below 2012," she says.
What after? "I want a child when I know I can give enough time to groom him or her." Thinking of hanging up her trusted racquet after the Games, she wants to open an academy too. "Not for the money. I want to teach the trainees a good way of life," says the firm believer of 'honesty is the best policy'.
It's difficult to attribute a single quality to this achiever. Maybe the 'Love All' tattoo on her right hand sums up Jwala. "Life is all about love. It's a score in badminton, but in both, one begins from scratch." is what she believes in.