THE NEW RACQUET GIRLS
They are glamorous, successful and full of life – and now Dipika Pallikal and Joshna Chinappa, India’s new racquet queens, are making the squash world sit up and take notice
Into the minds of Dipika Pallikal and Joshna Chinappa, the feisty champions from Chennai, who are driving India’s emergence as a squash superpower
A BOUT 11 kilometres separate the leafy, colonnaded Chennai colony of Anna Nagar from the posh, buzzy township of RA Puram. Negotiating the city’s mostly disciplined traffic, you are likely to take around 40 minutes to cover the distance between the two residential colonies. Between these two apparently disparate neighbourhoods live two of the most exciting squash talents in the country.
A few weeks ago, Joshna Chinappa (28), partnered with Dipika Pallikal (23) at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow to win India an unprecedented medal in squash. The two were also part of India’s Asian Games campaign at Incheon, South Korea, this month, where the contingent won four medals in squash. The count could have been five, had the duo not clashed in the singles quarterfinals, where Dipika reversed past record to emerge one better than Joshna in a tense, almost acrimonious contest.
Before this hour of glory, lazy marketers and scribes tended to bracket Joshna and Dipika into the “good-looking athletes” category along with golfer Sharmila Nicollet, notwithstanding their exemplary track record and playing chops.
Sure, both the Chennai girls are glamorous, forthright and full of pizzazz. But their racquets speak louder than their looks in a sport with a distinct male bias. In fact, protesting the discrimination against lower prize money for women in India, Dipika has been boycotting the national championships for the last few years. “Once women get equal prize money, I’ll participate again,” says the highest ranked squash player in the country, who broke into the top 10 of world rankings last year.
Ladies First Their exploits at Incheon, where Dipika and Joshna won the doubles silver, are another manifestation of the lustre woman-power is lending to India’s sporting fortunes. “You have several top women champions. And for a movie to be made on one of them is awesome. I watched Mary Kom and thought Priyanka looked mag- nificent and then I was with the real Mary Kom at the Asian Games and was touched by her humility. She’s so grounded for a five-time world champion,” says Joshna.
Although they both cut their teeth in Chennai and have a lot in common, the life stories of the two champions have their own share of pains and pleasures.
Early Lessons Joshna got introduced to squash at the Madras Cricket Club, where her father Anjan Chinappa, who runs a coffee plantation in Coorg, was a member. Field Marshal KM Cariappa, the first commander-inchief of the Indian Army in independent India, is Joshna’s great- granduncle. “My great granduncle, granddad and dad have all played the sport. My father came to Chennai and fell in love with city life. I began going to the club with him at the age of eight and since he has played for Tamil Nadu, I got my first squash tips from him. Papa was my coach for six years but I left him when he began putting too much pressure on me,” she jokes.
Like Joshna, Dipika didn’t have to look too far for sporting inspiration. Her mother Susan Pallikal has represented India in cricket. “My entry into the sport was accidental. I used to play tennis earlier, but I took to squash since my best friend, too, was going for squash coaching,” says
Dipika. Once her parents realised Dipika’s hand-eye coordination was ideal for squash, they reckoned she should train with the best in the world. At 13, she was sent for coaching to Cairo’s iconic Gezira Sports Club, since Egypt was the reigning squash superpower. Wasn’t it tough staying away from family and friends for a young, teenage girl? “I wasn’t really fazed about missing my teenage years because I was working towards becoming the top squash player in the world. I went to Egypt, England and now I am training at Melbourne. I’ve tried to adapt wherever I am. That is what most professional athletes do when they start living alone.”
The rigours of living out of a suitcase at a young age are something Joshna, the first Indian to win a British Open title, can relate to. When she began playing at the age of 10, she won pretty much everything on the Asian junior circuit. But the British Open, the mecca of squash, eluded her. In 2003, Joshna was relieved she could finally win after four years of losing in the initial rounds. “Sixteen is an interesting age. I was happy that I could win but all I wanted to do was go and buy candy with my teammates. I didn’t realise the magnitude of the win. At 16 there was still some innocence left in the world,” says the lithe athlete, lounging in her daintily decorated room near a dresser lined with junk jewellery and a trunkful of beaded bracelets.
Having candy and chocolate was a fetish that Joshna continued with well into her teenage years. In fact, after losing the World Junior title at Belgium in 2005, she devoured an entire box of chocolates, or so goes the story. Does she still indulge her sweet tooth? “Not any longer. Now I train hard and have to eat healthy. But I do have chocolates on the weekend and I like mint flavours such as After Eight and Lindt.”
The Wild One Although Joshna counts Andre Agassi as one of her sporting
Commonwealth Games squash champions Joshna Chinappa (left) and Dipika Pallikal bring glamour and
charisma to the gruelling sport