Put the diminutive and soft-spoken Dipika Pallikal inside a glass-encased squash court, and she transforms into a hard-hitting, hard-edged competitor. For the 19-year-old Chennai girl, in New Delhi for the $36,500 (Rs 16.42 lakh), three-day Punj Lloyd Women’s International Squash Players Association (WISPA) tournament, starting Friday, this transformation is nothing new.
She has been doing this since she was 9, and by the time she was 11, she was the under-12 national champion. Pallikal, who comes from a family of sportspersons (her grandmother was a state-level athlete, her grandfather a state-level basketball player, and her mother was part of the Indian women’s cricket team), says it was “necessary” for her to select a sport at an early age.
Higher ground: Chinappa started early in the domestic circuit but late on the international pro-tour. Javeed Shah/Mint
“I played everything as a child—basketball, tennis, athletics, squash—but by the time I was 9, my parents told me to pick a sport and stick to it,” she says. Pallikal enrolled in a summer camp at the then new Indian Squash Academy in Chennai, and was instantly hooked.
“I had a natural ability, and I loved playing squash from Day 1,” Pallikal says. “The academy had such a systematic, programme-oriented training that it was like going to school, except that you played squash instead of studying.”
Pallikal is not the only young Indian squash player pushing up the profile of the sport in the country. Sourav Ghosal, 24, is ranked No. 22 in the world among men, Joshna Chinappa, 24, is ranked No. 36, and there are more promising juniors lined up to take their first steps in the pro-circuit. The trio of Ghosal, Chinappa and Pallikal also has at least five years to hit peak form, and if they can continue on the same developmental curve, Indian squash may be looking at its best era ever, says National coach Cyrus Poncha.
Chinappa, who began playing squash at the age of 9 at the Madras Cricket Club under her father Anjan, a former state-level squash player, believes that the Indian Squash Academy, which began operations in 2000, is one of the main reasons why so many squash players are successful today.
“We were all part of the academy (Ghosal, Pallikal and Chinappa) when we were young, and that kind of disciplined, focused learning shaped our careers,” Chinappa says. “The academy reached out to schools and colleges and spread interest in the game.”
Between 2004 and 2007, Pallikal had won 16 international tournaments in the under-13 and under-15 categories, including the Dutch Open, the German Open, the Asian Squash Championship, and consecutive Australian Opens. For the globetrotting teenager, it was the perfect life.
“I was fortunate that I started getting sponsors early on in life, and also that my parents sent me to tournaments around the world to get the right exposure,” Pallikal says. “Not too many Indian squash players were doing that then. I loved the travelling, the playing and of course, winning. Obviously, missing school was one of the highlights!”
By 17, Pallikal was making inroads into the senior professional circuit, while continuing her winning spree in junior tournaments. This has been a breakthrough year for Pallikal. She grabbed the Asian under-19 Squash Championship with a thumping win, retaining her No. 1 position in the Asian under-19 rankings, and stepped out of junior tournaments for good. She ensured her entry into the professional circuit and kept up with her high-profile junior status, picking up her maiden WISPA title at the Indian Challenger in Kolkata, beating world No. 25 Emma Beddoes of England.
“The aim this year was to break into the top 30, which I did, despite training for the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games and neglecting the professional circuit,” says Pallikal, who is currently ranked 29 in the world. “I want to break into the top 20 next year, stay injury free and play a lot of tournaments.” Pallikal pulled out of the Commonwealth Games because of an illness; she and Chinappa won the doubles bronze at the Asian Games.
A growing talent pool
“A lot has changed in the last few years,” says Chinappa. “There are just so many good players now. Six or seven years ago, only Ritwik Bhattacharya was on the pro-tour, but now there is Dipika, Sourav, Siddarth (Suchde, No. 94) and me. So there’s a lot of buzz, and the sport is definitely growing.”
No one is better placed to make that observation than Chinappa, who has won the National Championship 10 times in a row, with her first title coming at the age of 14, and the last one earlier this month in Mumbai.
“It’s nice because I wanted to complete a decade in the Nationals,” she says. “It was important to me when I first won, and I’m happy to be able to win it 10 years later, but it’s not my goal in life.”
Despite the rapid strides squash has made, Chinappa says India still lags behind most European countries. “They are more professional, they have better coaches, more physiotherapists and physical trainers, and everything is systematic and structured,” she says. “We do have good coaches in India as well, but a game can’t grow centred around just one academy in Chennai. We need more such centres around India.”
Chinappa, who has been playing on the pro-circuit for five years now, won her first European WISPA title in May at the German Ladies Open, and believes she has found her rhythm in the pro-circuit in the last one year.
“I started playing senior tournaments a little late when I was already 19,” she says. “It takes time to get comfortable with your game and find your foothold in the pro-circuit, but I’ve improved in the last year.”
The addition of more high-profile WISPA tournaments in India such as the Punj Lloyd Masters will only help players such as Pallikal and Chinappa improve their status. Both players face off against higher-ranked opponents at the tournament, which features world No. 1 Jenny Duncalf from England and world No. 7 Kasey Brown of Australia as the first and second seeds.
“I have a round 1 match with Annie (Au, world No. 14), and even though I’ve beaten her before, I lost the last three times I’ve played her,” Chinappa says. “So I’m going to take it one match at a time.”