Twenty-year-old Dipika Pallikal is used to the blank looks and blunt “What’s that?” queries when it comes to squash in India. So she uses tennis parallels — “a racquet sport where you hit the ball against a wall.” And how does she convey the significance of playing in the semis of the Australian Squash Open (held earlier this month)? “It’s as big as making it to the semi-final of the Australian Open.” For the Chennai girl and world no. 14 (highest rank ever for an Indian woman), recognition has come slow. Today, however, is a highlight in her young career. As she receives an Arjuna Award from the President, she will be one of the few athletes from a non-Olympic sport to be awarded the honour.
Excited, she says, “I was in Australia when my father’s friend called to tell me about it. I called dad and asked him to congratulate me before telling his friends.”
But the Sanias of Indian sports still get more attention. With a measure of bitterness, she says, “If I’d made the semis in any other sport, I’d have had a few endorsement deals by now. I’ve learnt to live with that. All I can do is keep performing. The fame will come eventually.”
What about the fact that cricket dwarfs all other sports in India? “Cricket is overrated. But it’s all right; it’s like a religion in India. But the buzz that we saw around the Olympics, with boxing and wrestling coming into focus is encouraging,” she says.
Of course, playing any sport at the highest level requires discipline. Dipika’s practice schedule is rigorous. “An hour’s run in the morning, an hour-and-a-half in the gym, and another on court; then another hour-and-a-half of practice in the evening.” Food is a bigger challenge. “It’s hard when I go out with friends, and they order cheesecakes and tiramisus. Sometimes, I’ll allow myself a spoonful.”
Dipika hopes that squash will be included as an Olympic sport for the 2020 Olympics (it lost out to golf for 2016): “I’ll be 28 by then. But I’ll stick around. There’s nothing bigger than an Olympic medal.”