Sports runs in her family

Dipika Pallikal... her priority is to be 31 or 32 in the world rankings by December.-K. PICHUMANI

“When I joined college my classmates recognised me immediately and some have even offered to share notes for all the classes that I will miss because of my squash tours,” Dipika Pallikal tells S. R. Suryanarayan.

She has the looks to attract the tinsel world, but the girl is hardly interested in that. Not for the moment at least. She has a casual air that could sometimes be misunderstood for distinterest, but she is really focussed. Meet Dipika Pallikal, the next generation squash champion from Chennai.

In many ways this petite girl is a worthy successor to some noted champions from the city like Vaidehi Reddy and of course Joshna Chinappa. Joshna remains a strong force in the women's world of squash and Dipika has just shed the ‘junior' garb and entered the true world of professionals.

In a sense, this Ethiraj College English Literature student is set for a major overhaul to her approach to squash. “I am still swaying in the world of juniors but I know I must get to grips with the reality of what is professionalism in women's squash,” she said in an interview. Here the unwritten law is: no quarter is asked for and none given. Since she already has a few good displays, including a title-win in WISPA, the women's professional circuit, Dipika is confident of meeting the demands there. Ranked 38 now, Dipika has decided her priority: to be 31 or 32 in the world rankings by December.

Fresh from her success in the Asian Junior Championship in Colombo, her maiden triumph in the event and her last major competition as a junior, Dipika is clearly enjoying herself. “I have not touched my racket or done my usual routines in the last few days after the Championship win. The feeling is still sinking in,” she said, clearly aware of the work-load ahead. “Yes, with no junior competitions to look forward to any more nor national junior camps, I will have more time for professional squash and have decided to schedule my training at three places — Egypt, under Amr Wagih, England, under Malcolm Wilstrop and Chennai, under Cyrus Poncha/ Major S. Maniam,” said the champion talent, who has the backing of Mittal Trust and Punj Lloyd, her main sponsors.

Excerpts from her interview to Sportstar:

Question: Any missed opportunity as a junior player and the feeling overall?

Answer: Surely the inability to win the world junior title will rankle. I was twice placed third, the latest coming in Germany. Still some satisfaction was there including beating the girl who won the world crown in Chennai (reigning champion Nour el Sherbini of Egypt) for the third place this time. Of course, the Asian champion title has been a big encouragement. Earlier, I had won quite a few international tournaments, the highlight being the success in the British junior Open U-17. Then winning the national U-13 and U-19 (four times) titles gave me immense confidence.

Dipika thinks highly of Nicol David.-V. GANESAN

How did you get into squash?

I always had an interest in sports. My sister Diya and I used to excel in athletics competitions in school. Then I took to tennis and was training at the Income-tax courts under Mr. Baig. Somdev Devvarman was there then. Within a year and even before I got into any competition, I was introduced to squash by a friend, who took me to a summer camp at the Indian squash academy. Under Hari Om Tripathy began my first stint in squash. Since I was adept in handling a racket by then, thanks to tennis, the progress was swift. Then came the national U-13 title. With progressive improvement in training under national coach Cyrus Poncha and Maj. Maniam, I feel I have risen well in the sport. The encouragement that Mr. N. Ramachandran, now WSF President, had given was also a great factor.

Parental encouragement?

My parents have not forced us into any sport, but encouraged us when I or my sister took to anything. And of course sports runs in our close-knit family. My father (Sanjeev) was a cricket player, my mother was an India cricketer (Susan Ittycheria), my grandfather played basketball for three states and my grandmother used to excel in athletics. Even though I come from an orthodox family, exposure to sports has been accepted.

How much has squash helped you in your growing up?

It has disciplined me a lot and helped me to concentrate on things. Helped me to understand commitment and work to plans. I cannot say I sacrificed on my food. But to a large extent it made me understand as to what to eat for my fitness regime.

Your training and fitness routines?

When I am in Chennai, daily practice sessions for around 2-1/2 hours and other fitness exercises are a must. When I go to Egypt, it is 5-1/2 hours per day. Somehow I like the setting in Egypt. It seems just the way I wanted it.

Any player or players you idolise?

Surely Amr Shabana, the top Egyptian. He is so uncomplicated in his play. Makes things look so simple on the court. There is much to learn from him. And then, of course, Nicol David, the world's best woman player. The cool efficiency of her play and the consistency she maintains are amazing. I am looking forward to interacting with her more in the WISPA circuit.

The big change you expect in moving from junior to senior ranks?

Setting aside friendship-feelings and being business-like. In the women's circuit it is mostly ‘friends off court, but foes on it'. Everybody is fighting for points and so seriousness is the necessity. Not that we do not mix. I have played with Nicol and some of the other top players, but it has been mostly ‘hi or hello' with them. It will be a great education in learning to be on one's own.

Any sportsperson you admire outside squash?

Badminton champion Saina Nehwal. She has been brilliant. Sheer hard work and determination have been her plus points. Her story is all about inspiration.

The advantages of being a well-known player?

Meeting sportspersons of other disciplines and celebrities. Also, getting recognised. When I joined college my classmates recognised me immediately and some have even offered to share notes for all the classes that I will miss because of my squash tours. In fact in a week's time I am off for a few WISPA tournaments and by the time I return by August end, I will be getting ready for the Commonwealth Games preparations.

Any forays into films?

I did get offers in Tamil and Malayalam movies, but I am not for them at the moment. I did ad-commercials, but that is it. Nothing more.

Your goals now?

As a junior I missed the World champion tag. I came close though. I will strive to be the best in women's squash. That will be my motivation factor in addition to the sponsors' backing.

* * * Hard work paying dividends

It was a red letter day for India in the recent Asian junior squash championship (Individual) held in Colombo (as briefly reported). India won both the boys' and girls' titles through Ravi Dixit and Dipika Pallikal. What was special about Dipika's success was that this was her last major title as a junior.

Kush Kumar and Abishek Pradhan contributed to the event being a historic one for India by grabbing a bronze medal each in the U-15 and U-19 sections respectively. Two other players — Lakshaya Ragvendran and Anaka Alankamony — came fourth in the girls' U-15 and U-19 categories respectively.

Incidentally, all of them belong to the Indian squash academy and needless to say, both national coach Cyrus Poncha and SRFI consultant Maj. S. Maniam were highly pleased.

As N. Ramachandran, patron of the SRFI and in whose period as Secretary-General of the body the academy came into being, put it, “hard work and planning have begun to bear fruit. Indian squash has been given a direction and surely it will keep going high.” He hoped that the Commonwealth Games would be another benchmark for squash in India. He congratulated the winners and wished Dipika, who is leaving the junior ranks, all success in the women's circuit.

Maj. Maniam, one of the architects of India's turnaround in squash, was happy that the long term development programme had begun to yield results. He spoke highly of Dixit's performance. Down two games and facing a match-ball situation, the young talent clawed back to beat his Pakistan rival and second-seed Waqas Mehboob over five games. Earlier, Abhishek Pradhan had ousted another Pakistan player, the top-seed, Farhan Zaman. Maj. Maniam said what helped the Indian boy was not only his skill but staying power.

“Our plan to have the training at high altitude Udhagamandalam helped improve the players' fitness and stamina level,” he said of Dixit's resilience. “The training in Udhagamandalam was actually intended for another high-voltage competition (the coming junior World Cup championship in Ecuador) and the Colombo outcome has showed that the players are moving on right lines,” he said.

The top Malaysian coach, who has been with Indian squash for eight years, admitted that the sport wouldn't have grown without unstinting support from all around, especially Mr. Ramachandran. “He has been totally non-interfering, rather a source of encouragement and the results are there to be seen. I feel things have begun to fall in place for Indian squash because fresher talents are surfacing every passing year. This is what we had set out for,” Maj. Maniam said.