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

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - Front Page - by Aasheesh Sharma pho­tos by Saumya Khan­del­wal

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

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