Budding rivalry: Ashwini Ponnappa and Tanisha Crasto’s surge promises a riveting Race to Paris 2024

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Budding rivalry: Ashwini Ponnappa and Tanisha Crasto’s surge promises a riveting Race to Paris 2024

By Abhijit Nair

In December last year, Ashwini Ponnappa – one of India’s most accomplished badminton doubles players – decided to pair up with a player 14 years her junior, Tanisha Crasto.

This was another throw of the dice for 34-year-old Ponnappa. She had once reached great heights with Jwala Gutta. But after Gutta retired, Ponnappa did not quite have the same success with N Sikki Reddy.

By February, the newly formed pair of veteran Ponnappa and the young Crasto were ranked 141st in the world and struggling to get entry into high-level tournaments. They were also yet to find their feet on the domestic circuit, losing in the quarter-finals of the Senior National Championships to the ever-improving Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand.

Ten months on, Ponnappa and Crasto look like they have found their groove. The duo won the Guwahati Masters title last week in Assam. This came after they had finished as runners-up at the Syed Modi India International Challenge in Lucknow a week earlier, where they got better of the country’s top-ranked pair Treesa and Gayatri in straight games.

Along the way they won the women’s doubles titles at the 2023 Abu Dhabi Masters Super 100 in October and the 2023 Nantes International Challenge in June – their first title together.

This week, they start the 2023 Odisha Masters Super 100 as the third seeds.

Thanks to their recent rise, albeit in the lowest rung of the world tour, Ponnappa and Crasto have also drastically improved their world ranking from February. They are now the world No 24 team, India’s second-best behind two-time All England Open semi-finalists Treesa and Gayatri, who are ranked 19th.

Ponnappa and Crasto’s level up in performances could not have come at a better time for Indian badminton.

With the 2023 season heading towards its final few tournaments and the qualification race for the 2024 Paris Olympics heating up, Ponnappa and Crasto’s rise challenges Treesa and Gayatri, who were expected to represent India at the quadrennial event without much fuss.

As per the rules, a total of 16 pairs will compete in the women’s doubles badminton event at the 2024 Paris Games. A country, or a National Olympic Committee, can only have two pairs in the competition if both teams are ranked in the  top eight of the Olympics Race to Paris Rankings.

With 40,315 ranking points, Treesa and Gayatri are placed 14th in the Race to Paris Rankings. But Ponnappa and Crasto are not far behind, with 38,399 points so far. In other words, we are in for a riveting race for Olympic qualification.

The eighth-ranked pair in the Race to Paris Rankings – Thailand’s Jongkolphan Kititharakul and Rawinda Prajongjai – already have 65,733 points. This means that barring a miracle, it is virtually impossible for both Indian pairs to make the cut before the qualification period ends on April 30.

In all probability, there will be one Indian pair that will make the cut. But who?

Traditionally, the three doubles disciplines have been India’s Achilles Heel in badminton. With the exception of Ponnappa-Gutta in early 2010s and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty currently in men’s doubles, the country has not really produced a world-beating doubles pair.

The teams of Treesa-Gayatri and Ponnappa-Crasto are certainly not at that level yet, but in them, India has two quality pairs that can push each other to be the best version of themselves. And perhaps even get to a world-beating level somewhere down the road. These are two ever-improving pairs in the top 25 world rankings after all.

Fun Fact of the Week: The Indian women’s cricket team will end their home series against England with a one-off Test match, and begin the series against Australia with another one-off red-ball match. Those will be Test matches No 39 and 40 in the history of the Indian women’s cricket team.

The team played their first Test match in 1976 – part of a six-match series against the West Indies. In the 47 years since that debut match, India has played just 38 Tests, the last coming during the 2021 tour to Australia. The last time India hosted a Test match was in 2014 against South Africa.

In women’s cricket, only New Zealand (45), Australia (76) and England (98) have played more matches.

Here's a recap of the top stories from this past week

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