A16-year-old girl strode out of a squash court, having just suffered a four-set loss to a higher-ranked Tong Tsz-Wing of Hong Kong in the Asian Junior Team Championships. She headed straight towards her coach and asked, “Tell me, can I be the Asian junior champion this year?” This was in January.
“I felt I’d let my country down,” says Ananka Alankamony, now 17 and recently crowned the under-19 Asian junior champion in Amman, Jordan, after emerging triumphant from a gruelling five-set final. “The first half of the year had been hectic since I had to prepare for my class XII examinations, hardly giving me any time to train properly.”
Alankamony’s opponent in the final was Tsz-Wing again. And yes, she notched up 86% in the board examinations.
“Anaka is an extremely hard-working player,” says Cyrus Poncha, national squash coach. “Even though her ranking has dropped over the last year owing to her academic commitments, I’m confident that she will more than make up for it in the future.”
Mumbai’s Saumya Karki, 16, is another protagonist in the future of Indian squash. She narrowly missed out on emulating Alankamony’s feat when she lost to the top seed, Ho Ka Po of Hong Kong, in the under-17 finals at the Asian Junior Individual Championships in June. While Alankamony slogs away during training at the Indian Squash Academy in Chennai, Karki trains at the National Sports Club of India in Worli, Mumbai. The good friends’ parallel lives converge during tournaments, where they slip into sporting outfits and out of friendship mode—they turn into what Alankamony calls “enemies on court”.
Twin promise:Anaka Alankamony (left) and Saumya Karki during training at the Indian Squash Academy in Chennai. Nathan G/Mint
Over the last few years, they have run into each other four times in the finals of the nationals—scoring two wins each. While Alankamony is ranked No. 3 in the country and No. 121 in the world, Karki occupies the fourth spot nationally and isn’t registered for international rankings yet.
“Anaka is a hard worker, while Saumya has more flair to her game,” says Poncha. “Where Anaka holds an advantage right now is the experience she has accumulated by travelling for more international tournaments.”
Born in 1994, both players discovered squash when they were 9. A summer camp in Mumbai comprising multiple sports presented the opportunity for Karki. Following her preference for racket sports, she picked up squash and played the game all summer.
“I loved the intensity of the game and continued playing at a residential club at Hiranandani, where I stay,” she says.
Alankamony arrived at the squash court after a brief sojourn in tennis. Her grandmother advised her against sweating it out in the Chennai heat, and the subsequent search for an indoor sport led her to a squash court. Her remarkable felicity at the game received its first stamp of approval when, a mere four months into the sport, she reached the finals of the under-11 category at the Otters Open tournament in Mumbai. In 2005, she exploded on to the world stage as she registered wins in the first three international tournaments she competed in—the Malaysia Open, the Penang Open and the Singapore Open. The tennis émigré had arrived in the world of squash.
Karki, too, made her debut in the same edition of the Malaysia Open. The similarities between the two don’t end there. Quite like Alankamony, Karki also does not compromise when it comes to her studies. She scored 95% in her class X Indian School Certificate Examinations, or ICSE.
As they head into the Women’s World Junior Squash Championships beginning 20 July, the prospect of running into higher-ranked players early on looms large in their minds. Alankamony is preparing herself for a possible encounter with Amanda Sobhy (US), the reigning world junior champion and her nemesis in last year’s tournament. Incidentally, Sobhy will be up against Karki in the second round.
With India’s Joshna Chinappa, Deepika Pallikal and Saurav Ghosal having already carved out a space for themselves on the world squash map, the rise of Alankamony and Karki may be an encouraging sign for the future of the sport in India.