Meet Dipika Pallikal and Joshna Chinappa, India's new racquet girls
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. "We train as hard as the boys and play as much as them. We make the same sacrifices but don’t get our due. Once we get equal prize money, I’ll participate again," says the number one squash player in the country, who broke into the top 10 of world rankings in December last year.
Their performance at Incheon, where Joshna and she won the doubles silver, is another manifestation of the lustre women-power is lending to India’s sporting fortunes.
“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.”
Joshna says one her most treasured sporting memories came in 2000, when, at the age of 14, she became the youngest person to win the women’s nationals.
By holding both the senior and junior titles at such a young age she even eclipsed the achievements of Indian sporting greats such as Vijay Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan and Prakash Padukone. “I wanted to win the women’s nationals really badly at that age, so I was really, really happy.”
But for Dipika nothing comes close to going for gold at Glasgow and getting it.
“Scotland was special. It is the biggest win of my career. Because we don’t have squash at the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games are our biggest platforms to perform, especially since squash is such an underrated sport in India. Those are the only times it is televised back home,” she points out.
Reminiscing about the Games, where they beat Jenny Duncalf and Laura Massaro of England 11-6, 11-8 in the doubles squash final, Dipika says the atmosphere at Glasgow’s Scotstoun Sports Campus Squash Arena was charged up.
“We took it one match at one time, and our semi-final was a tough game. At one point, I was telling Dipika I don’t think I could do it. She told me that I should calm down and just play and that’s what I did and we won. Compared to that, the final was easier. The crowds were fantastic and the support from back home was incredible. It has never happened before,” says Joshna.
“Squash it is at an exciting new high. With the Commonwealth and Asian Games, we’ve proved we can beat the best in the world. Medals like this boost a sport up. It is a great time to be an Indian squash player,” adds Dipika.
Date, play, love
Clearly, these are eventful times for Dipika off the court, too. After a whirlwind romance, she got engaged with Indian cricketer Dinesh Karthik on November 15 last year, with the wedding planned for mid-2015.
When the top squash player in the country dates a cricketer known for his lightning reflexes and explosive batting, it appears to be a match made in ESPN heaven.
How did the two of them meet? “There isn’t really a story to how we met. We had known each other for six years but we were in touch on and off. Obviously, Dinesh was married before [to his former wife Nikita]. But one and half years back, we met again in the gym,” recalls Dipika.
“We exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch. I had to leave for England three days after that and Dinesh surprised me in England. After that everything happened really quickly. We started dating in February and got engaged in November. Once we got to know each other, we knew this was it,” she says with a smile.
What does she like about Dinesh apart from being one of the fittest Indian cricketers?
“I like to think I am fitter than him (giggles). Dinesh got into the cricket team when he was 19. So, he has seen it all. For me what helped me make the decision was this trait: he is a very humble person. He takes care of me real well,” she blushes.
Fitness appears to be a trait that finds favour with Joshna too, in the dating stakes. In the past she has said she has a soft corner for international athletes and Cristiano Ronaldo is her dream date.
“I like fit people. It can be any person who is fit, plays sport and someone I can train and work out with.”
On a lighter note, Joshna says her laptop is like her boyfriend. “When I travel, I don’t want to do anything else apart from sitting in my room and watching movies and shows that I stream onto my laptop. I love the way trashy television makes me feel good. I am watching more than 12 shows right now. On a regular basis I watch , and . I’ve watched all four seasons of the show.”
Since she travels so much, which is her favourite playing destination? “The United States: I love playing in America. In New York, we have a tournament played on a glass court which has been set up bang in the middle of the Grand Central station. I just love that venue,” announces Joshna.
Meet the divas
Dipika and Joshna have frequently figured in the most glamorous Indian athletes list of fashion glossies. And they take their style quotient seriously.
One of the perks of traipsing the world for tournaments is visiting global fashion capitals and exposure to the coolest new trends in street fashion. “I am not obsessed with designer labels,” says Joshna. “But when it comes with to high street brands, I like Top Shop and Diesel,” she adds.
Dipika is a little more of a fashion diva, in the broader sense of the word. And she carries her love of dressing up onto the court. “I love fashion, so I shop wherever I travel. For apparel, I like choosing from H&M, Zara and Forever 21. Closer home, I like Arpita Mehta’s couture and a bit of Gauri and Nainika.”
Now, walking the ramp at the Lakme Fashion Week Mumbai (the way Dipika did) is one thing and being offered lead roles opposite bona fide movie stars quite another.
Is it true that Dipika has turned down offers opposite ‘mega’ movie stars from Kollywood (as the Tamil film industry, a hybrid of Kodambakkam and Hollywood, is called)?
“Yes, there was one offer opposite Madhavan and another for a Malayalam movie opposite Mohanlal. But I was too young to take a decision and my father said no,” she says.
“Given an opportunity I might work in a Bollywood film, since my Tamil isn’t very good. I would love to work with any of the younger crop of actors such as Arjun Kapoor.”
They might hold forth on movies and fashion, but put them onto a court and the awesome Chennai twosome turn into world-beaters in the gruelling sport that is squash without even breaking into a sweat.
Dipika is looking forward to the day when she will triumph over world No 1 Nicol David of Malaysia and Joshna says beating former number one Rachael Grinham at the Richmond Open was no big deal. “
This whole thing of being Indian and not being able to go out there and beat the best in the world is long gone,” says Joshna.
“Breaking into the top 10 was just one of the goals that my team and I had set for ourselves. But if you have your goal set to be World Number 1, it is just one step towards achieving it. Breaking into the top 10 when you are 20 years old is great. But now, my goal is to be world number one!” declares Dipika.
Long after the racket over the Glasgow and Incheon victories has died down, the spark of interest for squash that the duo has generated amongst youngsters in the country will continue to ignite a thousand sporting dreams.
Deep down, Indian squash’s leading ladies know its chin-up time for the sport. Deepika Pallikal and Joshna Chinappa, take a bow.
From HT Brunch, October 26
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