Ushering in a new dawn for India

Joshna Chinappa (girls), Farhan Mehmood (boys), winners of the individual events with the runners-up Yasir Butt and Vaidehi Reddy on the podium.-Joshna Chinappa (girls), Farhan Mehmood (boys), winners of the individual events with the runners-up Yasir Butt and Vaidehi Reddy on the podium.

AT Sheffield in January when she became the first Indian girl to win the Under-17 title in the British Open, observers put her among the top juniors in the World. At Islamabad in February when she lifted the Asian junior title, there were no two opinions that Joshna Chinappa had become Asia's number one junior player. This has been a particularly incredible phase in the career of this gritty Chennai girl.

Sometimes failures can bring out the champion stuff out of a talented player. In Joshna's case the shattering experience of losing the senior national crown to arch rival Mekhala Subedar in Mumbai was the turning point. On return she had a long discussion with Maj. (retd.) S. Maniam on ways to steady herself and play with focus. Armed with the psychological input, Joshna seemed ready for overseas exploits. A luke-warm show in the Scottish Open was a starter for this eleventh standard student of Lady Andal School before she struck a purple patch in the British Open with a stunning win over top seed Egyptian Sarah Badr (The Egyptian's first loss at the British Open in four years) in the semi-final. Bagging the title then became a formality, so it seemed, at the expense of the Australian Donna Urquhart. All this was a prelude to the historic moments in Islamabad, something Indian squash had never witnessed for a long time. To that extent, Joshna, compatriot Vaidehi Reddy along with the rest of the squad had ushered in a new dawn in Indian squash and there is promise that the bright phase would continue in the seasons ahead.

In a way whatever unfolded at the PSB Roshan Khan Squash Centre was not entirely a surprise for Indian officials, who have been insisting that the systematic training programme being provided at the India Cements Squash Academy was having its salutary effect on the young players. As Maj. S. Maniam, who had once guided Malaysia into a foremost squash power in Asia and world, put it, "We had placed realistic targets before them and playing to potential, the girls achieved them", referring to the tremendous success that Joshna, Vaidehi and Alisha combine had done in getting past Hong Kong and then Malaysia for the junior team title. Maj. Maniam was particularly impressed with Joshna and Vaidehi, for the way they went about in the individual events before setting up a title clash between the two. "They have the ability to rise higher," said the Malaysian official while setting his sights on India's chances of making a quarter-final mark in the World junior girls championship scheduled in Cairo later this year.

As N. Ramachandran, President, Asian Squash Federation viewed it, the Islamabad experience has put Indian squash in a different perspective. "The performance brought all round praise and an acceptance that India is now a force in Asia," he said. It pleased him no less that he presided over the Annual General Body meeting of the Asian body which picked Joshna Chinappa as the `best junior player' for the Hasan Musa award and also the Indian boys' team as the `best in Asia' (Alex Lee Award) for its outstanding show in the World Championship held in Chennai when it jumped from 15th spot to the fifth in the team event. The award was to be shared with the Pakistani team, which had won the junior World title after a gap of two decades.

The victorious Indian girls' team which won the gold medal.-

Seven countries — Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Kuwait, India, Sri Lanka and host Pakistan — had taken part in the 11th edition of the Asian junior championship. India's presence was of particular interest there just as the way Pakistan's does in India for reasons other than sports. That the Pakistan Federation left nothing to chance and conducted the event in a professional manner came for special mention by the ASF. The Indians certainly had nothing to complain, but on the contrary went on to win plaudits. Understandably the focus was on the two Chennai girls, Joshna and Vaidehi to start with because Pakistan's strength lay not in the girl's section but boys where they are world champions and their success was a foregone conclusion. Though India came to the final in the team event, Saurav Goshal and Siddarth Suchde provided nothing more than a token resistance to the far superior Pakistanis Farhan Mehmood and Khalid Atlas. However in the individual competition, it was Pakistan all the way from the semi-final stage.

However there was variety in the girls' competition but the eclipse of the Malaysians at the quarterfinal stage was a surprise. The exit of Nicol David from the junior ranks apart the Malaysian junior scene seems to be going through a transition. So much the better then for the Indians, with Joshna ousting Chan Ho Ling while Vaidehi put out Chu Ka Kai, both Hong Kong opponents, in the semi-final. The stage then was set for an all-Indian final. In the form that Joshna was and fresh from her success in British Open, she looked the favourite against Vaidehi, who can be devastating when in good touch. They carry a healthy rivalry on court, even though they are the best of friends off it and the title-clash expectedly produced the touch of class. Joshna slipped first, not unusual for one who can be moody at times, but recovered quickly to carve out a golden chapter in her young career.

Such is the level of competition on the boys' side in Pakistan that predicting the winner was a dicey affair. In fact it was one surprise result after another till the final. That it was not the top two seeds Safeerullah and Khalid Atlas who featured in the final is in itself a telling commentary of the depth of talent in that country. What was noteworthy was that Farhan Mehmood, the ultimate winner had beaten his conqueror in the British Open Under-17 final, Yasir Butt for the honours. Yasir had earlier ousted Safeerullah and Farhan sent out Khalid.

If the individual events were a revelation of the Indian talent, then there was more to come in the team event with the boys too adding spice to India's performance by reaching the final. The win over Kuwait that brought India into the boys' final was remarkable for Siddarth Suchde's resilience and Gaurav Nandrajog's steadiness. The Kuwaitis had unsettled the Indians in the World championship earlier but this time it was different. Siddarth put it across Ali Ramzi even after surviving a scare. Two games down, he clawed back to beat the Kuwaiti. However Gaurav downed Salem Fayez Mohd in straight games to grab the tie-winning margin. Supreet Singh then completed a 3-0 rout by getting past Abdullah Mezayin in a two-game match. But for all this, Saurav Ghosal and Suchde could win together only 11 points against the Pakistanis in the one-sided final.

The Indian boys who finished second in the team event with their coach Cyrus Poncha (extreme left).-

But the Indian girls were spectacular in downing Hong Kong for a passage into the final. Joshna had set the tone by beating Joey Chan Ho Ling, Vaidehi was in great form against Chio Ka Kei, conceding just three points in as many games. The rubber decided, Alisha came up with an inspiring win over Au Wing Chi, the match going to extra points in the third game. India was then able to chalk out a 3-0 win over Malaysia for its maiden-title triumph. Vaidehi set the ball rolling with a hard fought win over Sally Looi in four games. Joshna then overcame a sluggish start to beat Lim Yok Wah to clinch the tie. Alisha as in the semi-final, then completed the tally with an easy win over Delia Arnold.

A short and well earned rest and thereafter the girls are bound to get back to practise as the Cario assignment in August is just months away. The boys had broken new grounds in Chennai, will Joshna and Co. provide a matching display?

The results: Boys: final: Farhan Mehmood (Pak) bt Yasir Butt (Pak) 7-9, 9-6, 9-3. 10-8; Team: Pakistan bt India 2-0 (Farhan Mehmood bt Saurav Goshal 9-1, 9-0, 9-5; Khalid Atlas bt Siddarth Suchde 9-5, 9-0, 9-0).

Girls: final: Joshna Chinappa (Ind) bt Vaidehi Reddy (Ind) 5-9, 9-7, 9-4, 9-6; semi - finals: Joshna bt Chan Ho Ling (HK) 9-1, 9-3, 7-9, 9-3; Vaidehi bt Chu Ka Kai (HK) 9-4, 9-4, 9-10, 9-3. Team: final: India bt Malaysia 3-0 (Joshna Chinappa bt Lim Yok Wah 9-5, 9-1, 3-9, 9-6; Vaidehi Reddy bt Sally Looi 10-8, 9-5, 7-9, 9-5; Alisha Mashruwala bt Delia Arnold 9-2, 9-4).