At the take-off stage for world level

S. R. SURYANARAYAN

IT was a day after her arrival from London. Joshna Chinappa was still shrugging off the jet lag, at the same time controlling the thrills within her after the recent achievement. The young champion, easily the best known name now in Indian squash had just added one more feather to her illustrious cap — the British Open Under-19 title beating an unseeded South African, Tenille Swartz, 3-1 in a 44- minute thriller. She is the first Indian girl to have won this prestigious event. It is amazing for one just 18 years of age, her deeds have become noteworthy. Step by step she had risen in stature from a state champion to a national champion several times over. From there to Asian champion and now with the prestigious under-19 title, Joshna has reached, to realistically put it, the take-off stage for world level recognition.

Joshna Chinappa, the best ambassador for Indian squash. — Pic. VINO JOHN-

Winning a title in the British junior Open is not new to this gritty Ethiraj College girl, for she had won the under-17 title earlier but what makes under-19, something special is the history surrounding it. It is more like winning the junior Wimbledon tennis title and then seeking greater success thereafter. Malaysian Nicol David and Egyptian Omneya Abdel Kawy are two striking examples in recent times of squash talents who progressed from being British Open winners to junior World champions. Can the Indian champion repeat history? This will be the one big moment that every squash lover in the country will wait for in August when in Belgium the next edition of the junior World championship takes place.

But as Joshna herself admits it is not as easy as it seems. There is much to be done, as the road to success is never laid with roses but thorns and pebbles so to say. Overcoming odds on the squash court has been her speciality but for that high quality preparations are but the sine qua non. Seeing her go through the motions to collect her fourth women's national title in Chennai a few weeks ago, this much is clear: Joshna needs to be challenged if her preparations are to be meaningful. For this the girl has to go abroad, spar with players of higher category and on a continuous basis. Can the SRFI work out an ideal place for her training keeping her and the country's interests in mind? Who will finance her trip and long term stay? Can sponsors back what easily is one of the best talents currently in Asia, let alone India? How soon can she leave the country for time is running out? Questions and questions that are familiar and often caused dilemma to Joshna's parents, for it is they who have ensured that the girl was free from such worries and concentrated wholeheartedly on her game. And have they succeeded thus far!

Joshna took time off to speak to The Sportstar on her experiences in the recent tournament, her dreams and her future plans. Excerpts:

Question: Runner-up last time and winner on this occasion, how did you go about at the British Open?

Answer: To be honest, I hardly trained on the courts for a month. Instead I followed my own instincts, and that is to improve my fitness. I spent much of the time prior to the trip to England at the MCC gym, in particular the treadmill. Only a fortnight before leaving for England did I take the racket in the hand, after joining the camp at the ICL academy for the Asian junior championship coming up in Chennai later this month.

Why this departure from the conventional training procedures?

Nothing. I wanted to do things on my own. Learn to focus more. Improve on aspects that I wanted to do alone.

Was that the secret to success in Sheffield?

Just that things rolled out well for me. My concern initially was the Egyptian Sara Badr, for even though she was seeded one rung below me (I was second seed), she had beaten me once before in the under-17 category. The way I got past her (3-0 in 24 minutes) in the semi-final convinced me that I had improved since we last met and also strengthened my resolve. Still facing an unseeded Tenille Swartz in the final brought a touch of nervousness. Particularly after the South African's fine run which saw her beat even the top seed, Charlie De Rycke in the semi-final. I had spent a sleepless night worrying over the final. Her confidence was high and the way she returned everything shook me. More so when she plucked the first game from me. Calm approach was the need and some how I was able to focus better. Despite near unending rallies, more often threatening to eat into my lead, you will not believe it was a straight forward strike to the tin off a serve that Tenille lost her final point! A timid end to a fighting contest.

The British Open under-19 champion is all set to shift gears to move into a higher mode. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

Any other highlights of the final?

I must say apart from the Indians backing me in that crowded hall, I was also moved by the support that came from the Pakistani players. All this only pepped me up.

You have been achieving your goals, one after another. What next?

Clearly the World juniors in August. Little over six months remain. In fact I am already behind time in terms of preparation. Ideally I would like to go abroad, say Holland or U.S., for that is where quality sparring can be had in addition to training. Some of the leading women players are based in Amsterdam. The ICL academy has done a world of good to me but at the moment there are few players with whom I can play at the academy and genuinely say, "Yes, that was a good outing". I need to be pushed around and I wonder if such challenge can be provided at present times in Chennai.

What's holding you back?

Obviously going abroad, my stay and other things would involve lot of funding. At present I must say SDAT and its Member Secretary, Davidar Sir have been of great help having brought me in the `Excellence programme for champions' and financing me. In addition TNPL has backed me. But I wish I had the benefit of the Government of India Sports Ministry's lump sum grant (Rs five lakh) for national champions. My father has more to say on how this issue turned complicated but the fact is I did not get the grant and he has had to hunt around for more funds. I am hoping that with my current achievement, I will have more sponsorship backing. I really need it for this is my best and last chance as a junior to aim for the world title.

What are your future plans? Is squash going to be a passport for higher studies abroad?

Squash and squash only. No chance of my going abroad for studies. If squash is going to get me a good job after my college days then well and good. Play squash as long as I can and then settle down....... get married to a millionaire (laughs). But seriously I plan to be associated with squash, maybe I should think on the lines of coaching at a later stage. I must thank my parents for all the support given to me and the TNSRA and the SRFI for all the training, guidance and opportunities given.