‘I am a better player overall now’

Joshna Chinappa… “I am 26 and hope to keep myself active for at least four to five years.”-R. RAVINDRAN

“I want to train hard and get into the top 10 in the next one year,” says Joshna Chinappa in a chat with S. R. Suryanarayan.

Back from Columbia after participating in the World Games, Joshna Chinappa, still feeling the jet lag, was relaxing at home. “It is difficult to find her like this, so relaxed. She always is either at the gym, working out, or practising,” said Sunitha, her mother and motivator, who ensures that Joshna does not have to worry about organising her travel plans. In her younger days, Joshna would always be accompanied by her mother to venues in the country and outside. Now she is an experienced traveller, squash having taken her to various parts of the globe.

From becoming the Asian junior champion to being ranked World No. 2 among juniors, this Chennai girl was the face of Indian squash for long. It was a wonderful coincidence that Joshna was reflecting on her achievements when the news of her nomination for the Arjuna Award came.

“Oh really, have I made it?” was her instant reaction before being overcome by happiness.

Joshna spoke to Sportstar on a wide range of topics including her crippling knee injury and how she overcame it.

Excerpts:

Question: So, recognition has finally come to you with the Arjuna Award…

Answer: Yes, this is something to cherish. The thrill comes when you least expect it, especially after my recent slump because of my knee injury and subsequent surgery. My form and ranking had slumped. I am glad that all the hard work has brought me dividends. I am ever grateful to the Squash Rackets Federation of India for recommending me for the award.

Talking about your knee injury, how did it happen?

It was a ligament tear on my right knee; it happened while playing a semi-final match against Samanta Cornett of Canada in a tournament in the U.S. in August 2011. I had to concede the match after feeling pain while going back for a return, while shifting my weight on to the right leg. After it was confirmed as a ligament tear, I soon returned to Chennai and underwent a surgery at the MIOT Hospitals. Dr. Jagdish did the surgery.

So the doctor assured you of a second innings in the sport?

No, actually I assured myself that. He fixed my knee and made sure that all was okay. Then I had to motivate myself to get back on the court. Nonetheless, it was a break that was least foreseen. I was out of the game for 10 months, a period when my ranking tumbled from 31 to 72. My only prayer then was that I must be able to fight back, remain a part of the professional circuit and be able to serve my country.

What were the thoughts going on in your mind as you lay recuperating in the hospital bed?

Initially I could not walk and told myself, ‘If I am going to struggle to walk then how am I going to cover the court?’ I used to limp initially because my knee had to heal. My fear was if the limp would become a habit. Later, I found jogging easier (smiles) and thus began the road to recovery. I was in touch with a rehabilitation expert named Ahmed Yousif, and as per his advice, I shifted to Mumbai after being in bed for two weeks.

Who motivated you during this period?

Those two weeks in bed — bearing the pain and watching TV — were the longest rest I’d had in recent times. My Mom and family members kept me motivated. The rehab expert, Yousif, and my friend and former National champion Ritwik Bhattacharya, who arranged for my stay, gave me encouraging words. But for me, each day was a mix of good and bad with the swelling in the knee taking time to heal. It was hard but I really pushed myself. My team-mates Saurav (Ghosal) and Siddarth (Suchde) kept in touch to inspire me.

When did you first step on the court after recovering from the injury?

While I was expected to be fit by February (2012) to step on to the court, I was ready in four months time for mild stretching on the backcourt. Yousif felt my recovery was faster than expected. As always, I trusted him and by the first week of February, I was able to go for full court play. And by the end of April, I was able to play in a tournament in Hong Kong. Then I was in the Indian team that won the gold in the Asian Team Championship in Kuwait. I also played in the Chennai Open where I won.

And you have progressed well since then…

Yes, I rose to No. 25 in the world rankings. Now I am 27. It may sound odd, but somehow I feel the injury and the break actually did a world of good to me. I could re-asses myself; check which direction my career was going and which set of people I should be moving with. I was at that point of my career when I needed to introspect. I realised there is enjoyment too in playing. The two weeks in bed and the events thereafter proved to be a learning curve for me and I think I am a better player overall now.

The worry about your knee is behind you now?

I am not sure. There is always the feeling that what was natural in you is today a mended part. The occasional pain reminds me of the agony I had gone through. Even today, when I bend for too long, there is pain in my knee. Fortunately, I do not let that distract me. I tell myself, ‘I am playing better.’ I have to live with that. I know I have a strong pair of legs.

Where have you reached in the sport?

I am still learning. Even the World No. 1 keeps learning. Each tournament is an education. The thrust is on fitness. Have to get fitter and always be open to new ways of training. At times, I feel fitness programmes encourage me more than the actual action on the court. Somehow, I have the feeling — particularly after the injury break — that I have not done justice to my abilities, to all the support I receive from the Federation, government and well-wishers. I must keep giving 100 per cent to whatever I do on the court. Fitness is the key.

What about your sponsorship support?

It is tough and more so if sponsors are not there. I have Nike and Harrow to support me, but I still need to supplement my funds through occasional coaching stints. Once in a while, I do coach in the U.S.

What are your plans ahead?

I am 26 and hope to keep myself active for at least four to five years. A few goals are there like winning an individual medal in the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games next year. The Nationals are there too. Depending upon the international calendar, I will keep myself busy. I want to train hard and hopefully get into the top 10 in the next one year.

Will you take up coaching thereafter?

Coaching is a distant goal. I like to work with the kids in India. I believe I can contribute. I have not given any thought to setting up an academy but may be run one if somebody starts it. I do not have business acumen for setting up an academy (smiles). Besides money is not the consideration as much as helping a kid to come up the rungs.

Who are the sports personalities that have influenced you?

I have met P. T. Usha. I had always wanted to meet her. She is special. I met Rahul Dravid; he is so humble. They have all achieved so much and are still level-headed. I respect that. Outside India, Nicol David, a rock star in her country, has made me realise the importance of being down to earth. She is another perfect example of a great achiever who is very humble.