About 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.
|Based in: Chennai and Mumbai, where she trains with former India number one Ritwik Bhattacharya|
Sports connection: The fifth generation in a family of squash players, her great granduncle was Field Marshal KM Cariappa. Her father Anjan Chinappa, who represented Tamil Nadu in squash, was her first coach.
World Ranking: 21 (as of October, 2014)
Claim to fame: A 12-times national champion, Joshna is a pioneer of women’s squash in India. She became the youngest Indian to win the British Open juniors at the age of 16 and has been a regular face at international competitions since.
Unwind mantra: Watching "trashy television" shows such as the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and listening to exponents of progressive house music such as Dinka and Claes Rosen
Match point: Her dream date is footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, or any person who is fit, who plays sport and someone she can train and work out with
“Women are finally getting their due. In a country with one of the worst statistics in gender crime, it is a really positive development,” says Joshna. “You have several top women champions. And for a movie to be made on one of them is absolutely awesome. I watched Mary Kom and thought Priyanka looked magnificent and then I was with the real Mary Kom at the Asian Games and was touched by her humility. I love that she’s so grounded despite being a five-time world champion,” she adds.
“Didn’t a recent news article say that most of the medals at Incheon came from women?” asks Dipika.
Although they both cut their teeth in Chennai and have a lot in common – such as the ability not to call a spade a shovel – the life stories of the two Chennai champions have their own share of challenges and joys, pains and pleasures.
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-in-chief of the Indian Army in independent India is Joshna’s great-granduncle.
“I am the fifth generation of squash players in the family. My great granduncle, granduncle, granddad and father have all played the sport. But my father was the first not to join the military. He came to Chennai, fell in love with city life and settled here. I began going to the club with him at eight and since he had represented Tamil Nadu in squash, got my first tips from him. Papa was my coach for the first six years but he was putting too much pressure on me. He would accompany me to tournaments abroad when I was very young, but every time I looked out of the court, he was sweating more than I was. As a kid you look outside and want to see a supportive face, you don’t want somebody feeling as pressured as you are,” she jokes.
Like Joshna, Dipika didn’t have to look too far for sporting inspiration. Her mother Susan Pallikal has represented India in cricket and her grandmother was a national-level athlete.
“I am the youngest of three sisters and mom asked all of us to take up at least one sport seriously. Today I absolutely love squash but my entry into the sport was accidental. I used to play tennis earlier, but I took to squash since my best friend went for squash coaching,” says Dipika.
Once her parents realised Dipika’s hand-eye coordination was ideal for racquet sports, they reckoned she should train with the best in the world.
So, at the age of 13, Dipika was sent for coaching to Cairo’s Gezira Sports Club, since Egypt was the reigning global squash superpower.
Wasn’t it tough staying away from family and friends at the onset of teenage? “No, I wasn’t really fazed about missing my teenage years or parties back home 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 made a lot of friends and I tried to adapt wherever I am. That is what most professional athletes do when they start living alone. I am 23 but I am way more matured than any 23 year old girl.”
The rigours of living out of a suitcase after becoming a teenage sporting sensation are something Joshna, the first Indian to win a British Junior Open title, can relate to.
When she began playing in the juniors at the age of 10, she won pretty much everything on the Asian 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 second round or quarterfinals.
“Sixteen is an interesting age. I was happy that I could win but I didn’t let that go to my head. All I wanted to do was go and buy candy with my teammates. I didn’t realise the magnitude of the win since at 16 there was still some innocence left in the world,” says the lithe athlete, lounging in her daintily decorated room, painted in pink near a dresser lined with junk jewellery and a trunkful of beaded bracelets.
Having candy and chocolate was a childhood fetish that Joshna continued with well into her teenage years. In fact, after losing the World Junior title at Belgium in 2005, she compensated by devouring a box of chocolates, or so goes the story.
Does she still indulge her sugar craving? “Not any longer. It used to be worse when I was younger. Now I train very hard and have to ensure I stay the way I am. So I make sure I eat healthy. I do have my chocolates on the weekend and I dig mint flavours such as After Eight and Lindt.”
The wild one
Although Joshna counts Andre Agassi as one of her favourite athletes, she doesn’t quite relate to what the champion wrote in Open, his autobiography, about how he “hated” tennis as a child.
“I absolutely loved it all. I got to travel around the world, when my friends were taking their exams. I didn’t have to attend school every day and I could come to school late after training. So, not everybody had my life. I have some great memories of the times I was a junior.”
Looking back, the 12-time national champion says she has mellowed with age and left behind her wild rebellious years where she got her ears and belly pierced and her back tattooed. “Oh come on, don’t even ask me why I got it done. I was 16 and got my back inked with a smoking devil tattoo in Mumbai without telling my mother and later got blasted by my parents!”
The years spent on the circuit have also given her perspective. “When I was younger and more adventurous, I probably didn’t have my priorities right all the time. As you grow older, you realise this is your time to work really hard and achieve your goals. Sport has a shelf-life right? I can always party later.”