Playing the Egyptian way

“When I see Dipika (Pallikal), or Joshna (Chinappa), or Saurav (Ghosal) winning, I know we have great potential here. This is what I like. I love challenges and am working on modules to improve the sport here,” says India’s new squash coach, Achraf El Karagui.

Achraf El Karagui... a hands-on coach.   -  V. GANESAN

When Major S. Maniam decided to leave after serving Indian squash as consultant coach for 14 years, he left a huge void for the Squash Rackets Federation of India (SRFI) to fill. He, and the National coach, Cyrus Poncha, had set up a solid foundation and were churning out players with potential.

However, nine months later, that worry seems baseless, for youngsters are winning titles, old guns are hungrier than before and Indian squash has certainly never looked better. Roping in Egyptian coach Achraf El Karagui now seems like the best decision ever made by the SRFI.

Velavan Senthilkumar, 19, lifted the prestigious British Junior Open trophy; Joshna Chinappa had her best ever showing at the World Championship by making the quarterfinals and followed it up with India’s first gold medal in the Asian Individual Squash Championship that concluded in Chennai recently.

That Joshna played against compatriot Dipika Pallikal Karthik in the final fits nicely in the description of a perfect summer for Indian squash. Saurav Ghosal finishing runner-up in the men’s section meant three Indians had made it to the finals of the regional championship — another first for India.

The silver medal won by Misha Grewal in 1996 had been India’s best performance in the Asian Championship. In front of a curious mall-hopping crowd — whose perception of the event ranged from ‘modified indoor tennis’ to a ‘new gaming zone’ at the shopping mall — at the Express Avenue, the venue of the championship, that not-so-impressive record was swiftly erased by these players under the supervision of the coach, Achraf.

Before the start of the Asian Championship, Velavan Senthilkumar, who won the British Junior U-19 title, said: “I think Achraf has improved my mental aspect of the game. He taught us how to play like Egyptians. He helped us get rid of the mental block and play a lot more aggressively.” Velavan featured in two back-to-back finals.

Joshna Chinappa credits Achraf El Karagui for helping her strategise and understand her game better.   -  M. VEDHAN

Sunayna Kuruvilla, the reigning Under-19 National champion, discussed Achraf’s methodical training. “He makes us concentrate on perfecting our shots. We play the same shot over and over again till we master it,” she said.

It is not rare for players to be effusive while praising their coaches, but it is not very often that different players reveal different traits and different aspects of a coach’s method that have helped them become better athletes.

While Dipika swears that she has become fitter, lighter and mentally stronger after Achraf took charge, Joshna is thankful to the Egyptian for his help in strategising and helping her understand her game better. This underlines the 51-year-old coach’s attention to detail and his customised training regimen for each player.

Achraf is a hands-on coach. With a pen and paper in hand, he tracks every movement of his ward and the opponent during play, notes the footwork and analyses the power of the shots. And between games, Achraf is by his ward’s side, explaining the chinks in his/her opponent’s game and how he/she can exploit it.

While one player credited Achraf for forcing to him to pull things back and play from the back court, another revealed how the coach’s idea to play a lot more aggressively and from the front helped her win the match. Two matches, two very different gameplans. That’s Achraf for you.

His tactical shrewdness is one aspect every player seems to be in awe of, and no one sums it up better than Dipika. “I have been training with Achraf for the last eight months. A lot of things have changed in my game. I am feeling a lot more confident and lighter. He is someone who breaks down my game really well. I sleep very comfortably thinking that Achraf will be in my corner. He gives me a gameplan and I just execute it. I don’t have to sit and break my head over my gameplans anymore,” she said.

For players who are used to travelling alone and playing by themselves, it is a welcome change. Plans have been made to allow coaches to travel with players to select tournaments, and at the centre of it all is Achraf.

Deepika Pallikal... “I have been training with Achraf for the last eight months. A lot of things have changed in my game. I am feeling a lot more confident and lighter. I sleep very comfortably thinking that Achraf will be in my corner.”   -  M. VEDHAN

The bespectacled Egyptian is in India on a one-year contract because he is convinced about the potential of the Indian players. And he relishes challenges. “I came here to coach because I love challenges. What we did in 20 years in Egypt, I want to do it in India. (Egypt is a powerhouse in squash, much like China in table tennis.) We have a plan to work on. Not just me but also N. Ramachandran (president, SRFI) and Cyrus (Poncha) are doing their best to improve the sport in India,” Achraf said.

The performance of the Indian players in the Asian Championship is heart-warming, but Achraf knows it is just the beginning. He has already started planning for the World Junior Championships in July and is ready to push the youngsters to their limits.

There is still work to be done and a system needs to be put in place. However, a one-year contract won’t be enough for Achraf to accomplish his mission. “I am making long-term plans. Not for today, but for India’s future in squash. I think I will continue,” he said, while revealing that discussions pertaining to his contract were in progress.

“When I see Dipika or Joshna or Saurav winning, I know we have great potential here. This is what I like. I love challenges and am working on modules to improve the sport here. We are working on a programme for U-11 and U-13. It is a race, we have to start early. We are also planning to have more camps for players and coaches. They need more exposure to new ideas, new plans,” he said.

Indian squash will do well to keep Achraf’s services for as long as it can.