Meet Anahat Singh, India's first girls' US Open champ in squash

Updated on Jan 03, 2022 10:33 PM IST

The 13-year-old from Delhi followed her older sister into the sport and has been taking junior competitions by storm

Anahat Singh lifted the US Open junior squash title in Philadelphia PREMIUM
Anahat Singh lifted the US Open junior squash title in Philadelphia
ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai

Her words might be measured and frequently interrupted with pauses, but Anahat Singh’s attraction to a squash court speaks of a distinctly opposite character trait.

“Squash requires a lot of energy and excitement. I’m a person with a lot of excitement. And I think squash is a game that fits my personality,” she says.

Last month, the 13-year-old Anahat lifted the US Open junior squash title in Philadelphia, becoming India’s first girls’ US Open champion in any age division, according to the tournament website. In the prestigious event that had more than 850 juniors competing from 41 countries across categories, the New Delhi-based Anahat defeated Egypt's Jayda Marei 11-9, 11-4, 8-11, 11-5 in the under-15 girls final.

Yet, there were no flashy celebrations from the family in the aftermath of one of Anahat’s most cherished international titles in her young squash career; simply some quiet few days off with their relatives in the US before heading back to India. “We haven’t really talked about the fact that she has won the US Open,” her mother, Tani Vadehra Singh, says. “She is still very young, and has a long journey ahead. We try not to make a big deal of it. Just let her be.”

Squash runs in the family. Anahat’s elder sister Amira was the first to pick up the sport in school. Among India’s top under-19 players, Amira moved to Harvard University last year as part of its 2021-22 women’s squash roster while also pursuing her bachelor’s degree. Anahat’s early interest was in badminton, but she switched to squash when she was just eight, following her sister's footsteps.

“Like all younger siblings do,” Tani says. “She loved badminton and squash equally, but had to decide which way she wanted to go.”

The parents—Tani, an interior designer, and her lawyer husband Gursharan Singh both played hockey at different levels in their youth—left that choice to their daughters. Never mind squash being a niche and expensive individual sport in India. “They went ahead with whatever they wanted to do, and we just followed,” Tani says.

Anahat did go ahead, and pretty quickly at that. In 2018, she bagged the under-11 national title, and backed it up with the under-13 trophy in 2019. She also made a mark internationally that year. Anahat became the British Junior Open champion in the under-11 category, following the likes of Dipika Pallikal, Joshna Chinappa and Saurav Ghosal to have won the coveted junior British crown from the country. The same year, she also captured the European Junior Open, youth titles at the Dutch Open and Scottish Open and was part of the bronze-winning Indian team at the Asian junior championships. Stepping up in the age group, she began 2020 with a silver medal at the British Junior Open before the pandemic halted her progress.

“I have no idea,” Tani says with a smile when asked about the reasons behind her youngest daughter’s relatively early success. “But she is a natural at sports; she was always very athletic in school and liked playing different sports. And she absolutely loves playing squash.”

Work from home

At different points before the lockdown, Anahat trained with Amjad Khan and Puneet Singh at Siri Fort in New Delhi, and has also had stints under former pro Ritwik Bhattacharya. The pandemic kept the sisters at home, and they made use of that time training with each other. The empty space on their house’s terrace was converted into a makeshift squash hall—a wooden flooring was installed and the height of the walls increased a touch to resemble an open-air court.

Amira was Anahat's coach-cum-hitting partner for a majority of their year-and-a-half at home before Amira moved to Harvard last year. Amira made sure she flew to Philadelphia for the US Open, though, guiding a coach-less Anahat—currently ranked second in Asia in the under-15 category—throughout the tournament. “It made up for the few months that I did not get to see her,” Anahat chuckles.

Like most siblings growing up, they tend to fight quite a bit, but Anahat acknowledges that she would not have played the game if not for her sister. "I wouldn’t have known about squash if she hadn’t entered the game before me. She even kept me in it during the pandemic phase,” she adds.

Future hope

Not surprisingly, Anahat hopes to tread the path of her sister and aim for a student-athlete seat at Harvard (and its squash team). But the class 8 student at the British School in Chanakyapuri understands that it would entail equal dedication towards academics and her squash. “My elder one has done it, so if she follows her, she at least won’t go wrong,” Tani says. “But while Amira was focused more on studies, Anahat is more into squash. Our job as parents is to make sure she gets the balance.”

Squash often eats into Anahat’s TV time and play dates with her friends and cousins, but she finds solace in painting—she can paint all day, her mother says—and learning the piano. She idolises star Egyptian pro Ali Farag, and aspires to be the best among the lot herself one day. “My aim is to become a world champion,” Anahat says.

That would mean turning professional at a certain point, a decision Tani says they will have to weigh carefully. “We’re not sure how the next few years will pan out. It’s totally dependent on what she wants to do,” Tani says. “She does want to turn professional. Squash is an expensive sport, and it depends on what kind of support she gets from the outside apart from what we can do. So, we have to go with the flow. But that’s her dream, and it has been one for some time now.”

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