National Championship

Manish Chotrani's class act

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

MANISH CHOTRANI showed that age is only people's fixation with numbers; reality can be different. He regained the National men's squash title at 32, defeating a 23-year-old rival in the Professional Squash Association circuit. A nine-year difference that can be daunting in a sport meant for fitness freaks, but this Mumbai-based garment exporter showed the heart to turn a handicap into a virtue, relying on experience of previous four final clashes, losing twice, to his advantage.

The champions: Mekhala Subedar and Manish Chotrani. -- Pic. Vivek Bendre-

Ritwik Bhattacharya, the nation's only squash player slogging it out in PSA events, had faced Chotrani three times before in a National final. The 50th ICICI-Lombard Senior Nationals men's decider was the fourth meeting between these two from different generations. The top seed ran away with the first two frames, then stumbled over the next three as an inspired second seed raced away to a two-hour 6-9, 3-9, 9-5, 9-4, 9-6 victory at the Otters Club glassback court.

Chotrani jumped into a swimming pool with clothes on after coming out of the playing arena, a spontaneous act signifying the release of pent-up feelings. "I do not know whether winning a National title in this manner will ever happen again. I find it very satisfying to beat not just the top seed in the final, but also one of the country's full-time professionals," said the jubilant champion, after a landmark career win worth more than Rs. 50,000 on offer to the winner.

Ritwik is a hardened pro, figuring in 11 PSA tournaments coming into the Mumbai Nationals from his London base, training under Neil Harvey and hitting with the likes of Malaysian Ong Beng Hee and Peter Nicol. "He could have beaten me only on pace," observed Chotrani, trying to put together his thoughts after the amazing turnaround. "That is how I lost two earlier finals. I guess this time he just got carried away after getting the first two games, expecting me to give up."

Chotrani not only hung in there, but had taken the upperhand by the end of fourth. "I had made up my mind not to give up till I was dead from exhaustion. I did not want to lose and then feel bad for not having giving off my best. So I willed myself to play on, denying him easy points and by the time the final reached the fifth game, I was setting the pace," said the second seed, crediting his clubmates for the victory. "The court was familiar and the crowd support so inspiring and uplifting that I forgot all about tiredness."

Mekhala Subedar (right) exults after beating Joshna Chinappa in the final. -- Pics. Vivek Bendre-

Ritwik, India's best hope despite the Mumbai loss, with four semifinal appearances out of 11 PSA events, will be a better player after the Chotrani comeback experience. He played the 50th Nationals to provide much-needed exposure to sponsors. "Samir Thapar (of Jagatjit Cotton Textiles) has stood by me, so has the Delhi Squash Association. Playing the Senior Nationals is one way I can give them something back for their support," said the top seed, whose presence in a domestic tournament, albeit due to a yearend circuit break, was enough to fire competitive instincts in youngsters who had rubbed shoulders against him before the London switch.

Delhi junior Gaurav Nandrajog played beyond expectations to reach the men's seminfinal, deservedly earning a chance to gauge his developing talent against the top seed, whose fitness and raw pace proved too much for the U-19 player to handle. Ritwik won in three games, trailing in early stages before catching up each time he stepped into attack mode, showing samples of speed and powerplay required at higher levels. Chotrani quelled another promising youngster, Sahil Vora, setting the stage for what turned out to be an once-in-a-lifetime performance.

Mekhala Subedar proved the value of family inputs in the creation of a champion, wresting the women's title from Joshna Chinappa, a hyper-active youngster armed with tremendous talent and supported by Indian Cements Squash Academy. The 16-year-old Chennai girl made too many errors in the four-game final lasting 77 minutes against the second seed who showed more hunger and resolve to win 9-5, 10-8, 6-0, 9-7. "Winning back the National title was very satisfying, considering the difficulties faced in just playing at competitive levels. It is only because of my parents involvement that I have reached this far."

This 25-year-old Deolali (Nashik) resident is one of squash's survivors, retaining fighting instincts despite staying far away from the sport's hotspots, using available resources to prepare for major tournaments. Her entourage, if it can be called one, comprised Deolali's Mahesh Verma (a Nationals semifinalist in professional category) as sparring partner, father Colonel H. S. Subedar donning various roles from coach to motivator and her mother monitoring her diet after reading nutrition literature. Mekhala's playing attire is sponsored by Nike. But other expenses are borne by the Subedar family funds.

With so much at stake for the family, apart from self-pride, Mekhala played to win, dismantling Mumbai's Priyanka Yadav in the semifinals and grabbing every point coming her way against top seed Joshna in the final. It was the second final loss this season for the 16-year-old Chennai girl at the 25-year-old's hands, raising hopes in others down the line vying for a place at the top. Mumbai's Deepali Anvekar, keeping away from squash courts due to medical studies and commuting time between home and college, made the best of the situation to reach the semifinal stage.

Chennai's S. Balamurugan stamped his authority among the country's best professionals, squashing the aspirations of Kolkata's Dilip Tripathi to finish first among these hardy types who depend on squash to keep home fires burning. Chandrakant Pawar, a former professional national champion and coach now testing his mettle in men's 45-plus category, is a strong votary of grooming pros (now engaged in technical jobs like court markers, umpires and practise partners) for national representation.

Pawar, the men's 45+ runner-up, feels the time is ripe to break down barriers. "Professionals are now the backbone of Indian squash, doing everything from marking, coaching and officiating. The current generation play well too. With organised training and match experience, the best of the lot can be considered for international competition. The national federation (Squash Racquets Federation of India) should cast the net wider when looking out for talent, working with bodies like Indian Squash Professionals to make the most of the situation," said the 48-year-old, now coach at Otters and The Leela Hotel besides teaching juniors, among whom Junaid Nathani, Vikram Malhotra, Deepali Anvekar, Priyanka Yadav and Sahil Vora have made a mark.

He reasons that pros children are more likely to continue in the sport in the hope of making a living, unlike other kids who seek squash scholarships in American colleges after becoming junior internationals, then focus on studies at squash's expense. "Academies like India Cements at Chennai will shorten the queue of juniors wishing to study abroad, since sponsorship and facilities swill be available for those joining the academy, but such squash schools have to happen all over India for the sport to become an attraction. Then we can build on achievements like an admirable fifth place at recent World Juniors."

The 50th ICICI-Lombard Senior Nationals was organised by squash secretary Avinash Bhavnani on behalf of Otters Club. Mr. Dilip Dandekar, the Otters president, gave away the prizes. Vaman Apte and Darius Surti won the men's 45+ and 35+ events respectively. The top two men's finishers earned Rs. 50,000 and Rs. 25,000; the women's champion got Rs. 20,000 and runner-up Rs. 10,000 in that order.

The results:

Men's final: 2-Manish Chotrani (Mumbai) bt 1-Ritwik Bhattacharya (Delhi) 6-9, 3-9, 9-5, 9-4, 9-6.

Semifinals: M. Chotrani bt Sahil Vora (Mum) 9-2, 9-5, 9-2; R. Bhattacharya bt Gaurav Nandrajog (Del) 9-7, 9-5, 9-4.

Women's final: 2-Mekhala Subedar (Deolali) bt 1-Joshna Chinappa (Chennai) 9-5, 10-8, 6-9, 9-7.

Semifinals: M. Subedar bt Priyanka Yadav (Mum) 9-3, 9-2, 9-5; J. Chinappa bt Deepali Anvekar (Mum) 9-4, 9-3, 9-0.

Professionals final: S. Balamurugan (Che) bt 2-Dilip Tripathi (Kolkata) 9-3, 9-2, 9-1.

Semifinals: S. Balamurugan bt Mahesh Verma (Deolali) 9-6, 9-7, 8-10, 9-3; D. Tripathi bt Santosh More (Mum) 9-2, 9-3, 9-5.

Men's 35+ final: Darius Surti bt Rohit Thawani 3-9, 10-8, 9-3, 9-0.

Semifinals: D. Surti bt Raj Arora 9-0, 9-0, 9-6; R. Thwani bt Meherwan Daruwala 9-5, 9-2, 9-3.

Men's 45+ final: Vaman Apte bt Chandrakant Pawar 9-4, 9-0, 9-1.

Semifinals: V. Apte bt L. Laxman 9-4, 9-0, 9-2; C. Pawar bt Kishan Lal 9-2, 9-4, 9-7.