Just three months have passed since the Squash World Cup, a mixed team competition, was held in Chennai. India, the second seed in the tournament, bowed out in the semifinals after a loss to Malaysia, drawing much criticism among fans, officials and the media.
The Indian contingent has since put the disappointment behind it, putting in the hard yards for another challenge — the Hangzhou Asian Games.
The Indian squad this time around bears a mix of youth and experience with the famed trio of Saurav Ghosal, Dipika Pallikal Karthik and Joshna Chinappa on one side and promising youngsters like Anahat Singh on the other.
Bringing in the big guns
To help the Indian players fine-tune their game in singles and doubles, the Squash Rackets Federation of India (SRFI) roped in two former World No. 1s in singles — Gregory Gaultier and James Willstrop and the reigning World doubles championship silver medallist Rory Stewart for a High-Performance camp (it will conclude on Sept. 23) in Chennai in a bid to improve the country’s medal tally at Hangzhou.
India had won four silver and a bronze medal in the previous (2018) Asian Games in Jakarta. Cyrus Poncha, SRFI secretary, says India is very much capable of winning a gold in at least one category, earmarking the mixed doubles pairing of Dipika Pallikal-Karthik and Harinderpal Singh Sandhu for the same.
“We are hoping for better results. The preparations have given us the confidence of better performance. The colour of the medal is key,” said Poncha.
“We are certainly focused on bagging a gold medal in at least one category and we have the best chance in mixed doubles. The men’s team and men’s singles with Ghosal, who is seeded two in the Games, are categories we can bring home the crown,” he added.
Poncha believes the experience and class of Ghosal, Joshna and Dipika will be crucial in helping the team improve on its Jakarta showing. “That’s why I believe we can win more medals and improve the colour of the medals,” Poncha added.
In legends like Gaultier and Willstrop, the Indian side has a treasure trove of experience to draw from, particularly when it comes to strategising in crunch situations.
Gaultier has a whopping 44 PSA Tour singles titles to his name while Willstrop has 21. Gaultier announced his retirement two years ago and is now coaching some of the top players in the world, including Nour El Sherbini and Mohd. El Shorbagy in Prague (Czech Republic).
Willstrop is no stranger to the Indian set-up, given his long-term friendship with Ghosal (the two trained under James’ father Malcolm for quite a while too). The 40-year-old Englishman has gone from competitor to coach for Ghosal and a few other star players in Pontefract (England). Willstrop is also an accomplished doubles player having won a silver in the 2006 Commonwealth Games and a bronze in 2014 & 2018 Commonwealth Games. While he still plays on and off in the PSA Tour, he is sliding down the world rankings, going as low as 60 this month.
At the camp in Chennai, Willstrop sparred with Ghosal and Mahesh Mangaonkar and also with the mixed doubles pair of Dipika and Harinder.
Garnish the dish
Coming into the contingent with just weeks left for the side to compete in Hangzhou, Willstrop believes he can only garnish the dish that’s already cooking. He underlines that he can’t promise the moon with the priority being the basics and, perhaps more importantly, mental toughness.
“The main focus will be to talk to them and do the little extra things like providing a bit of psychological help that will help them take over the line,” he said.
Doubles especially, the Brit asserts, is more about the mind than the body.
“The rallies are tough and lines are very very fine between the pairings. Things happen in the mind. We will give them some deep insights and talk about how to deal with high-pressure situations,” he added.
Willstrop threw his faith behind his friend Ghosal and believes he can win a gold medal in men’s singles. “It is definitely possible. His physicality is right up there. He’s in great form. We hope the 10 days at the Games go well for him,” he said.
Gaultier had sessions with Joshna, Ghosal and others as well and is looking to use his experience to provide the Indian drawing board with fresh ideas.
“I am here to bring some fresh ideas on and off the court and fresh drills they are not used to. My sessions with the Indians will break their routine and take them out from their comfort zones. I know how important it is to do well at the Asian Games. My job is to toughen them up,” said the Frenchman.
Ghosal has ascended the top of the podium once, when the Indian men’s team won gold in the 2014 edition in Incheon. However, the 36-year-old has never won the ultimate prize in singles, falling short in the final in Korea.
The one-on-one sessions with Willstrop and Gaultier have been doubly important for Ghosal and the World No. 20 exudes confidence.
“We have a good team to win gold in the team event and I have a good chance to do so in singles. It will be all about maintaining the physical and mental side of things and being as fresh as possible. Hopefully, I will win the singles gold,” the 37-year-old said.
Playing to their strengths
Mangaonkar, who is part of the Indian men’s team and men’s singles in the Asian Games, hailed the timing of the high performance camp in Chennai and its role in strengthening the bonding among the players.
“As per the seedings, the Indian men’s team is No. 1 and we are expected to win gold but there are tougher teams like Malaysia, Hong Kong, Kuwait and Japan. We have to give our 100%,” he added.
Joshna, 37, is India’s best bet at the Games and feels the team has to back her if it wants to win the gold medal (the women’s team returned with silver after losing to Hong Kong in the previous edition).
“There is enough depth in Asia and so the tournament will be difficult right from round one.
“Playing for India in these continental events has prolonged my career and it will be very special to win a medal at the Games,” she said.
Abhay Singh is India’s No. 2 singles player after Ghosal. But the 25-year-old has chosen to skip singles to concentrate on mixed doubles (with Anahat).
“It’s a decision that I gave a lot of thought to and one that I will not regret. Excluding me, we have the same team that won team gold in the 2014 Games. We can deliver gold this time too. With Anahat, I will aim for a medal in our category as well,” he says.
Indian coach Surbhi Misra believes the women’s team too can go all the way this time around.
“Tanvi Khanna is in very good form having reached three finals in Australia and winning one. We are in the same group as Malaysia. Even if we lose to them, we might be facing Hong Kong in the semifinals, against whom we are quite confident. We are on course to reaching the women’s final,” she predicted.
In a sport that operates on a macro level like squash does, continental events give these players a chance to come together under the national flag. Chris Walker (in pic, left) , the Indian team’s foreign coach, said the objective of the camp was to strengthen the camaraderie and trust among the players.
“More important was getting everyone together to be part of the group and up the team spirit and that’s happening,” the coach said. However, there’s no stopping the Indian think tank. Strategising continues and towards the same, the SRFI has brought in video analysts to better understand the players the Indian contingent will go up against.
“Our objective is to help our players understand how the opposition has been playing in the last 6-12 months. We provide insight, which may help the players gain a small advantage,” said S. Shankar of BanyanBoard.
Truth be told, India can be comfortably confident of landing medals (whatever the colour might be) in all five categories. While chances in the mixed doubles look bright, topping the podium will be an uphill task in the other brackets of competition, especially for a transitioning team that needs its younger lot to step up and aid its ageing warhorses.
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