Nearly a year ago at the Commonwealth Games, Anahat Singh was on the brink of becoming the new poster girl for Indian squash. That’s when she declared, “I want to be the World Champion.” She was just 14 at the time, an age when studies and wild ambitions take centre stage. Anahat, though, is not cut from the same cloth, and seems to have figured out her path already.
In 2022, out of the 16 tournaments she played, the Delhi girl stood first in all but three — the Commonwealth Games, the National Championships and the National Games, events where she was beaten by some of the world’s top players, such as Joshna Chinappa. “Last year was probably the most important one ever since I started playing 5-6 years ago. That’s when my game improved the most. So, yeah, I feel like until the next Commonwealth Games or until I get a medal in a major tournament, I’ll keep saying that 2022 is the biggest year for me,” says Anahat.
Over the years, a common problem plagued Indian squash players: a late transition to seniors. While Nour El Sherbini from Egypt, the current world number 1, had already won the World Championship by 20 and is now on her way to winning her sixth title, Indian players are usually just starting to play senior tournaments by then.
However, these players were also victims of circumstance. With little to no PSA tournaments happening in India until 2019, one had to shell out large sums of money to travel abroad and play to get points. Anahat started playing the sport when it was on the cusp of gaining momentum in the country. The HCL India tour, a multicity challenger level circuit, started in 2019 to help Indian players get PSA points without having to go outside the country. Apart from the umpteen national circuit tournaments she played last year, a part of her focus was also on playing the India tour tournaments. For her to get adept at playing at the international level, her parents motivated her to play a few of these tournaments so that she did not waste a single year when she became eligible at 15.
“On my 15th birthday this year we all sat together and enrolled in PSA, so now I am actually eligible to get points if I play the Challengers, since my world ranking right now is around 400,” she says sheepishly, perhaps because the young gun is only used to being at the top. However, her growth as a player has coincided with a growth in her support system.
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Saurav Ghosal, current world number 17 and India’s best squash player, has been an ardent supporter of Anahat. He’s been guiding her on the next steps, knowing all too well the challenges she could face. For Ghosal too, his will to support the player comes from the determination he sees in her: “Anahat has already proved that she’s right up there with the world’s best juniors. Her mental strength is something that sets her apart and that is something you can’t teach anyone. “
For Anahat, her persona on and off court is like an actor playing a role on camera and being someone completely different off it. The fearlessness doesn’t translate off the court; her shy mannerisms would never let any one know of the lengths she has reached in her short career. As Sportstar went to do a photoshoot with the evidently camera shy 15 year old, she tried to strike an awkward pose. Later she asked her mother to leave because she got even more nervous — a sign that indicates that she’s still a young kid trying to navigate this new lifestyle.
However, on the court, as Ghosal says, “Mentally and physically she’s very good. She’s probably just a level lower than Amina Orfi who’s the current world junior champion. A few more shots to her arsenal would help her become a more complete player.”
Egyptian Orfi, for those unaware, is the current world junior champion and a four-time British junior champion. At the time of writing, she has broken the record for being the youngest player ever to reach the third round of the World championships at 15. Squash in Egypt is like badminton in India, or perhaps even a level higher. Almost all of the world’s top 10 players in the men’s and women’s sections are Egyptian and a lot of them are fairly young. Orfi is a product of this giant squash system where umpteen PSA tournaments take place every other day in the country and with the world’s best players training together at the same club, finding the best coaches and sparring partners is never an issue for anyone.
For Anahat however, that is not the case. While she does have the likes of Ghosal, Dipika Pallikal and Joshna guiding her, the lack of quality coaching remains an issue.
Currently she’s training with Stephane Galifi, a French coach and former world top20 player. On being asked about how his training differs from Indian coaches, she says,” I guess it’s a little hard for Indian players to adapt to foreign coaches because their training style is different. I like it because it’s so much better than doing the same things on repeat for years the way the Indian coaches do it.” She’s perhaps referring to the style of Indian coaching where you do practice drills every day and then play matches on designated days, and keep continuing with this for years. “I only play matches. Stephane is based in Mumbai, so whatever he needs to tell me happens on the phone. I’ve never had a coach work with me every day,” says the teenager.
Nonetheless, as her career progresses, she’s ready to face the challenges head on, including her 10th standard board exams this year. Even though her ultimate aim is to become World Champion and World No. 1, finishing her education is also a priority.
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