Awesome performances

S. R. SURYANARAYAN

IT was good that there were no anti-cruelty activists watching the men's final of the senior National squash at the SDAT-India Cements Academy courts the other day. For the title round would have been a perfect case for them to be concerned about. Jokes apart, it was a ruthless show of supremacy by the top Indian, the only player from the country participating in the tough Professional Squash Association circuit, Ritwik Bhattacharya against Manish Chotrani. It is a different matter that two seasons ago in the same city the same Mumbai-based garment businessman had dashed the dreams of what was then an up and coming talent. Last year Ritwik settled scores in style and in the period thereafter the Delhi player has if anything only gone several notches up in his standards to make his one time rival look pleading for mercy. In just 24 minutes he blasted Chotrani off the court and gave the impression of having just had a routine day in office.

In a ruthless show of supremacy, Ritwik Bhattacharya (right) blasted Manish Chotrani in the men's final.-V. GANESAN

It was just a normal game as per Ritwik's admission. But seldom has a competition in India seen the kind of power that flowed from his racket, the accuracy of his shots be it the steeply angled drops or the down the line drives and his on court sprightliness. In fact Ritwik seemed in such tearing hurry that Chotrani looked so woefully lacking in stature in the former's company. Mind you this after Chotrani had made such impressive strides, getting past seeded players like Dhiraj Singh and former junior national champion Bikram Uberoi. If anything Ritwik reflected the virtues of playing in the tough world of PSA circuit, where there is no place for the also ran.

At rank 90, Ritwik may not be exactly a world beater but in India he certainly is a giant and that brings the pertinent point, why embarass him by asking him to take part in the national championship as a pre-condition for representing India. Perhaps the Squash Rackets Federation of India should view such performing Indians with a different perspective and make them a permanent entity in the national squad as long as they are active PSA circuit players. And Ritwik certainly is giving his all for making a mark in world squash. Not that Ritwik is averse to showing his skills in the national championship but it would be lot meaningful if his performances were to trigger a willingness among rising talent to follow in his footsteps and get ready for sacrifices. About that there is still a big question mark.

Joshna Chinappa (right) bounced back from the brink to script a sensational win over former National champion Mekhala Subedar in the women's final.-V. GANESAN

So if Ritwik provided a class act then schoolgirl Joshna Chinappa, the reigning champion bounced from the brink to script a sensational win over former national champion and strong aspirant Mekhala Subedar of Nashik. Matchball down it was like staring into the barrel for Joshna. But then this lively girl had often shown amazing ability to retrieve lost ground and the final was another instance. She proved that a match is never over until the last point is won and puzzled Mekhala with her resilience and brilliance. A few close returns did the trick, pushed an already tiring Mekhala behind as Joshna wriggled out and what is more grab that game amidst cheers from her fans. The tough task over the rest was easy. The hunter turned the hunted almost instantly. "I wanted to prove a point that I am the best", the deserving pride on Joshna was unmistakable.

Ironically in two earlier tournaments preceding the national in Mumbai - Maharashtra Open and the CCI Western India Open - Mekhala had carved out easy wins over Joshna, something that made her believe that she would be able to add one more national title to the three she had won already. In a bid to ensure there was no slip in this endeavour, Mekhala had arrived in Chennai a month in advance to practice under national coach Cyrus Poncha. Preparing for MBA exams, she even opted to write the examination in Chennai to facilitate uninterrupted study and squash. But where she went wrong was in under-estimating Joshna's abilities. "I must say she certainly played well in the final", the former National champion and the top-seed was to acknowledge, in all humility, in the end.

Those two finals certainly lit up the championship. Fittingly the action must have gone to the drawing room of several squash lovers for Doordarshan provided a live coverage. It is said when two reigning champions are able to retain their hold then that also reflects a paucity of fresh challengers. Not entirely true of the women's section after that touch and go final. Still much more was expected from players like Sohini Kumari, sister of that once famous name in women's squash, Bhuvaneswari and also Deepali Anvekar. Both these players had come into squash from other sports. Sohini from tennis and Deepali from swimming. Sohini impressed Mekhala in practice sessions but when it came to true test buckled to the latter. But Deepali, a medical student, certainly has potential, with studies taking most of her time, she has only weekends or holidays to devote to squash. Despite her obvious grit, Joshna was a different proposition altogether. This plus the fact that there were just 16 entries for women's competition should give the true perspective on women's squash.

Tamil Nadu's Balamurugan receiving the trophy (professional category) from P. N. Vittal Das, Commissioner of Customs, Chennai. N. Ramachandran, President of TNSRA and Secretary, SRFI, is also seen.-V. GANESAN

However the disappointment was more on the men's side. Despite a 64 draw competition, walk overs and disinterest stood out. None symbolised the sorry state of affairs more than Bikram Uberoi, a former junior National champion and whose talent should logically have made him the one to challenge Ritwik for honours.

Observers however found the earlier fizz missing in Bikram's game and approach and this was vivid in the semifinal against Chotrani, who at best is an occasional player these days. "I do not get time for tournaments but my fitness level and game can still keep me going", Chotrani was to state and in a way mirroring the lack of focus and hard work among players of the generation after him. Chotrani proved the point when he got past the erratic Uberoi, who after the match was to attribute the defeat to a sore groin problem.

From Tamil Nadu's point of view the championship was an occasion to rejoice. Apart from Joshna's triumph, success had come through Rajiv Reddy in the over-45 category and Balamurugan in the professional category. Srivatsan Subramaniam, the Tournament Director, finished runner-up in the over-35 category. Aside from trophies, the winners also received prize money totalling around Rs. one lakh.

Rajiv Reddy (left) and Rohit Thawani, who won the over-45 and over-35 events respectively.-V. GANESAN

As Mr. N. Ramachandran, President of TNSRA and Secretary, SRFI was to say, with each competition in the city, the interest in squash is only going up. He expected Chennai to become a nerve centre for squash before long and surely with the World junior championship slated in the metropolis in 2002, the sport is expected to get a big boost.

The results finals: Men: Ritwik Bhattacharya (Del) beat Manish Chotrani (Mah) 9-4, 9-1, 9-2; Women: Joshna Chinappa (TN) beat Mekhala Subedar (Mah) 9-5, 3-9, 6-9, 10-9, 9-0; Professional: Balamurugan (TN) beat Mahesh Verma (Ma) 6-9, 9-5, 9-1, 6-9, 9-1; Over 35: Rohit Thawani (Mah) beat Srivatsan Subramaniam (TN) 9-6, 4-9, 9-7, 9-1; Over 45: Rajiv Reddy (TN) beat M. Meyyappan (TN) 9-7, 1-9, 9-4, 9-1.

RITWIK BHATTACHARYA made a big sacrifice to achieve his goal, of making a mark in world squash. At rank 90, he still has a long way to go but the Delhi player spends much of his time now abroad, currently in England where he trains at Neil Harvey's school, which had brought forth several top players to the world stage. Son of an Air Force personnel, Ritwik's foray into squash was only to be expected because this sport is part of the fitness-keen Services men. Soon came the decision after graduation to sacrifice a regular career and plunge into the world of squash. With talent and the willingness to work hard, all he needed was support and for that the Delhi Association and Nike came forward.

All things taken care of, Ritwik at 24 is out on his own. Squash takes him to various parts of the world including Pakistan and earns him the experience of rubbing shoulders with some of the best in the business. And improvements have begun to show at least in the rankings from outside 100 last year to 90. Rising from there, winning some key tournaments and enjoying the aftermath of it all, are some of his immediate aims.

It amused him when he heard the reaction to his demolishing of challenger Manish Chotrani in the final for his third title. "Well, I played my normal game. May be he did not", was his immediate comment but the truth was that Chotrani was not given room to play his normal game. Ritwik smiled away suggestions as to whether he had anything to gain from playing in the nationals considering the challenge he encounters. A professional that he is, to him it was one job over and concentrate on the next. "Yes, from here I get back to England and for further training", he said making it quite clear that PSA circuit is not for the easy going but hard workers.

Joshna Chinappa is just 16 and still in school. She is amazingly equipped to withstand the kind of pressures that a sports life could offer. So attached is she to squash and so supportive have been her parents that Joshna, despite worry of studies hardly misses a session in the court. Her natural talent and oncourt attitude had made even a sharp observer like Maj S. Maniam, a respected coach from Malaysia, believe that "she is a world champion material". What makes Joshna special is not that she is already a women's champion but the way she wins. Winning a title is one thing but carving a win from impossible situations quite another. Her latest triumph, the second women's title, came that way, from the brink.

"This championship was important to me. I needed to win to prove a point that I am the best", the strong-willed girl was to state after her famous win. "I had lost to Mekhala twice in Mumbai when I was not fully fit, a chest congestion affected my movements", she was to say but surely those were the defeats that had planted a new dream in Mekhala of regaining the title, she had won thrice earlier. What a fall it ultimately was for her ! Surely winning a national title provides a huge impetus to one's confidence and right now, Joshna is on a high even as she sets her sights on the British and Scottish Opens later in the season. To be sure, this Lady Andal school student will never be short of inspiration or well wishers.