They reign with a ‘foreign' hand

The winners of the Senior National squash championships, Dipika Pallikal and Saurav Ghosal, with Chief Guest M. Vijay Kumar (left), Member Secretary, SDAT and Srivatsan Subramanian, Secretary General, SRFI.-V. GANESAN The winners of the Senior National squash championships, Dipika Pallikal and Saurav Ghosal, with Chief Guest M. Vijay Kumar (left), Member Secretary, SDAT and Srivatsan Subramanian, Secretary General, SRFI.

Saurav Ghosal picked up his seventh national title, the sixth in a row, while Dipika Pallikal broke through for a maiden crown. K. Keerthivasan reports.

Saurav Ghosal and Dipika Pallikal are united by their desire to excel. In the last couple of years, their game has improved by leaps and bounds. Their repertoire of strokes, strategy on court, and mental outlook have improved manifold. The two highest ranked Indians in the world have polished their game to such an extent under the guidance of foreign coaches that the gulf between them and other Indian players has become quite huge.

Saurav and Dipika, ranked 26 and 17 respectively in the world, proved that they belonged to a different league by winning the Senior National squash championships at the Indian Squash Academy held in Chennai recently, losing just one game in the process, In the men's section, Saurav tamed Harinder Pal Sandhu for the third successive time in the National final, while Dipika eased past Anaka Alankamony in the women's summit clash.

Saurav's record in the Nationals has been pretty awesome, clinching the prestigious title six times in a row and seventh overall. For Dipika it was certainly a memorable event as she clinched the National title for the first time. Twice earlier, she was stopped by Joshna Chinappa, who didn't play this time due to a knee injury.

“It is difficult to explain in words,” said Saurav, when asked what he learnt from Malcolm Willstrop in Leeds. “Playing with James Willstrop and other top players has radically changed my approach to the game,” he said. Saurav plays regularly on the pro circuit and this has helped him reach the top level. “It does help,” he said. “I have been working hard after a minor injury in August this year. Playing in front of your audience gives you a high. Winning the Nationals is still a priority for me.”

Dipika, on the other hand, credited her career-best world ranking of 17 to the coaching she received from five-time World Open women's champion Sarah Fitz-Gerald. “I've been training with her since August 2010. She has been a huge influence on me. She has changed my mental outlook to the game,” said Dipika. “She made me believe in myself. I am a more safe player.”

Nobody really stretched Saurav in the early rounds. The top seed routed qualifier Arjun Agnihotri of Services for the loss of just six games in the pre-quarterfinals, and then took apart Karan Malik, a trainee of Indian Squash Academy, in straight games. Karan had earlier put it across Vikas Jangra of Services, a higher seeded player.

The way Ravi moved and executed his shots against Mahesh Mangaonkar of Maharashtra, seeded higher than him, in the quarterfinals, did give an impression that Ravi would provide a tough fight to the defending champion in the next round.

But Saurav is made of a different mould. Delicate drop shots, amazing court coverage and a sharp squash mind marked his contest against Ravi. Saurav won with ease, much to the surprise of all, including Ravi.

Harinder Pal Sandhu is a wonderful player with oodles of talent. The 21-year-old defeated Maharashtra's Siddharth Suchde, the second seed, in the semifinals to set up a summit clash with Saurav. Harinder was determined to put his best foot forward as he had lost to Saurav in the finals of the last two editions. Again, he came second best. Barring the first game which Saurav lost, his first in the championship, he was spot on.

Saurav controlled the rallies making Harinder run hard. The top-seed was a notch higher than Harinder in all aspects. As Harinder said after the match, “Playing in Leeds has made Saurav a much better player.

He plays in a lot more Professional Squash Association (PSA) tournaments and that has made him more confident and fit,” he said.

The standard of the women wasn't up to the mark. Dipika and Anaka's opponents in the early rounds looked like beginners, to say the least. Ankita Sharma of Maharashtra and local girls Aparajitha Balamurukan and R. Lakshya were the ones who showed a ray of hope.

The women's final was pretty interesting. The best of Anaka emerged in the second game where she proved her talent in adequate measure. Dipika, however, controlled the proceedings and asserted her supremacy to claim her maiden National title.

The results (finals):

Men: Saurav Ghosal (TN) bt Harinder Pal Sandhu (TN) 8-11, 11-6, 11-3, 11-1; Women: Dipika Pallikal (TN) bt Anaka Alankamony (TN) 11-7, 8-11, 11-4, 11-7.