I have plenty more left to achieve for India: Joshna ChinappaAugust 29, 2017
Joshna won the National Squash Championship a few days back and the Asian Championship in April
She recovered from a career-threatening knee injury sustained in 2011 and hasn’t looked back since
Joshna was recently appointed a senior sports officer with the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation
NEW DELHI: “I’m not thinking of stopping anytime soon. I have a lot more to achieve.” Being appointed a senior sports officer with the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation does not mean that Joshna Chinappa, India’s highest-ranked squash player, is contemplating life beyond the sport already. Her decision to make a direct appointment under the sports quota was made after she put in a request. And as Joshna puts it, the post is a back-up so that she can work towards the promotion of sport when she is done as a professional squash player.
That thought however, should be put away for a long while because Joshna is going strong. Over the weekend, she won the 74th National Squash Championship as many expected, and even though she did not have it easy in the title round, it all went according to the presumed script. Joshna notched up her 15th national title by beating Lakshya Ravendran 11-6, 8-11, 11-2, 11-4 in the final, which leaves her just one shy of equalling Bhuvneshwari Kumari’s record of 16 titles.
That wasn’t even her best though. In April, Joshna became only the second Indian in 21 years to make the final of the Asian Squash Championship. This time she would go one up on Misha Grewal – who had claimed silver in 1996 – and clinch gold. The Asian crown is a big shot in the arm for the 30-year-old ahead of the Commonwealth and Asian Games next year.
Speaking to TOI Sports , she elaborates: “The Asian Championship is one of our prestigious events in squash and I’ve been playing the Women’s Championship since I was 12. When I played it the first time, I won the consolation prize; I don’t think many people know this. I’m just really glad that I could win it this season. It was a long season last year and it was a nice way to cap it off. I’m happy to have won it in Chennai in front of my home crowd.”
One could almost sense it coming. There were a few quarter-final and semi-final finishes in between since she broke into the top 10 in November 2016, and one of them included the World Championship in Egypt. Joshna, seeded 12th, lost 6-11, 12-10, 7-11, 11-8, 3-11 to second seed and World No. 3 Camille Serme of France. Then there was also a second-round elimination at the British Open Squash Championship in London – just a month before the Asian Championship – where she lost to Egyptian World No. 3 Raneem El Welily. It was a frustrating period.
“Absolutely; especially last year in Mumbai when I lost the final of the $ 35,000 event. I’d come that close to ending my drought of lifting a title. Of course it was heartbreaking but as an athlete you keep going back, keep working harder, keep fighting. Eventually it will come together. It’s frustrating as an athlete to figure when it’ll come together but that’s what being professional is about, and I love it,” says Joshna.
“I enjoy training much more than I enjoy playing the actual matches. I love the work that goes into being a professional squash player. It is so physical and I really like that part. The playing part is not so exciting because there is nerves, pressure of winning matches. I’m the most relieved when the game is over; irrespective of a win or a loss.”
Beyond that immense training lies Joshna’s gritty determination and steely resolve. To clinch the Asian title, she beat none other than Dipika Pallikal, her compatriot and at the same time one of her biggest opponents. She had lost to Dipika the last few times – including the final of the National Championship last year – but come the All-India final, where both were assured of a medal, Joshna had come prepared and eventually prevailed in a tight five-game encounter 13-15, 12-10, 11-13, 11-4, 11-4. The two go way back; to a time when Dipika was a 10-year-old who had just started playing and had front bands falling on her forehead. Growing up training together, they know each other’s games inside out, and as time passed, evidently, the two became each other’s competition.
“We have this unique case where even though we have to compete against each other, at the same time the next moment if we have to play for India, we are on the same page,” Joshna says. “Of course we have our ups and downs in the game but today we are at a place where we both have each other’s back. We really want to do well for India and win medals for the country together. We had a great time at the World’s doubles Championship where we won a bronze medal and we have great team work going on right now. We train with the same coach, who has been a real positive influence on both of us.”
Despite training with different coaches, for a major part of her career, Joshna travelled to tournaments without a coach before the Squash Rackets Federation of India roped in Achraf El Karagui as the consultant coach midway through last year. A native of Egypt, a country that is a force to reckon with in squash, Achraf has been a positive influence not just on Joshna, but also the likes of Dipika, Saurav Ghosal and many budding players.
“I work with Achraf pretty much all the time, and he has helped be bring order and structure to my game. I know what I have to work on everyday and I’m constantly reinforcing the physical aspect, skill aspect, mental aspect day in and day out. That I believe is going to help me become a more complete player when I’m competing with the top girls,” Joshna says.
“Achraf has been part of that Egyptian culture so he brings a lot of that with his coaching when he’s working with me or Dipika or anyone else for that matter. So I know how these girls are working. Also I went and spent some time in Egypt during the summer; I was training over there so I worked with one of their top fitness trainers. I really got to know the type of work a world champion is doing and tried to put those elements in my game. I felt a lot stronger and understood the game better. I owe a major chunk of my success to him.”
And to think that all this almost didn’t happen. In 2011, during the semi-final of the Hamptons Open, Joshna tore a ligament on her knee and was stretchered off midway. The scans suggested that Joshna’s injury was almost a career-threatening one and the doctors’ flat-out verdict of her being out for at least year was almost “coup de grace”. It was so bad that all Joshna wanted to do was to be able to walk again.
“It was very heart-breaking but then again, it allowed me to begin a process. I moved to Mumbai to basically get away from everything, do my rehab there and come back stronger,” Joshna says. “It gave me the opportunity to start from scratch and do things right. So I really worked on my physical strength, getting my legs stronger; I worked with Ritwik Bhattacharya (ex-national champion and Joshna’s coach for four years). I just think I became a very different athlete and person altogether from that injury.
“I had close members of my family who thought that it was best that I stop and get into coaching. They were like ‘there is no need to risk your body and making it go through trauma’ with the rehab and the surgery. To me, it was the worst thing to happen in terms of the injury and pain but easily the best thing to happen to me in my life. The dream of playing for India is what kept me going.”
For Joshna, there is no bigger honour than to win a medal at the Olympics, but it’s something that might elude her with squash struggling for recognition as an Olympic sport. Not making the cut for Rio, squash also missed out as an event for Tokyo 2020. At the 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires, the IOC voted for Wrestling instead of Squash or Baseball/Softball. A new bid is expected to be launched for the 2024 Games but there is no clarity.
“Olympics for sure would help raise the profile of our niche sport. Suddenly you have sponsors, and the corporates coming in; the government starts taking you seriously and give you that much extra support than they usually do. We have tried really hard over the last 7-8 years to get it and it is disappointing when you compare the other sports that have gotten into the Olympics. Squash definitely has to be in there. We’re still trying and going back to the drawing board and hopeful that the IOC can see that,” says Joshna.
Being an ambassador of the game, Joshna admits there is a lot that squash needs to do. One of them is to conduct more tournaments, and in cities outside of Chennai. That of course, is in addition to Joshna contributing in whatever way she can. “I may not be around by the time squash graces the Olympics but I would really want to be known as someone who lent a helping hand in India one day winning a medal at the grand stage.”