Nearly 10 years ago, in the 2014 Asian Games, the Indian men’s team won a historic gold that included Harinder Pal Singh Sandhu, who played a crucial role. Dipika Pallikal, on the other hand, bagged a historic women’s doubles gold with Joshna Chinappa in the Commonwealth Games that happened two months earlier, in July 2014.
In 2023, with hardly two months remaining for the Asian Games in Hangzhou, the two trailblazers of Indian squash are in joint pursuit for a possible second gold medal for the country in the Games’ history.
Dipika and Harinder are riding high after having won the first Asian mixed doubles championship—described as a ‘test’ event ahead of the Asian Games — in Hangzhou (China) in June this year. Seeded third, the Indians defeated the top two seeds to bag the prestigious Asian title.
Though this is the first time they have played as a pair, Dipika and Harinder have known each other since 2003–04, as they have travelled to different parts of the continent since their junior days for the British Open and other such events.
“The first time I saw her was in 2004 for a tournament in Britain, and then we travelled to Scotland and Bristol and several Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. She is a class act, as everyone knows. Playing with her has been a learning experience, as she put me at ease,” said Harinder.
The Asian mixed doubles championships featured 21 teams from 10 countries, and the event was certainly not as easy as some might think. It had the best teams, as the forthcoming Asian Games will have a mixed doubles event for the first time.
Dipika has a powerful forehand and backhand and is an acknowledged specialist in angles, while Harinder, a solid player with soft hands, is known to be quick on his feet. With such redeeming qualities, both played controlled and measured squash without being flashy, not losing even a game in the entire tournament.
After flawless group matches, the Indian pair continued its fine show in the knockout phase.
In the semifinals, the pair upset the top-seeded duo of Aifa Azman and Syafiq Kamal of Malaysia 11-9, 11-6, and in the final, it overcame a spirited challenge from the second-seeded Malaysian pair of Rachel Arnold and Ivan Yuen 11-10, 11-8.
“The top two seeds were obviously hard to beat, but we knew that at the end of the day, we are all good squash players, and if we stick to our plan, we can do it,” said Dipika.
Dipika and Harinder knew that they were pairing together only during the World Doubles Championships in Scotland in April, and in such a short time, how did they prepare?
“Harinder and I have been good friends for a long time; he is older than me by two years. It was a no-brainer when we were paired together. I took input from Saurav Ghosal, as I’ve paired with him for many tournaments, including the mixed doubles gold at the Worlds this year and the 2018 Asian Games silver. We started training in mid-April. Doubles is all about planning before going to court,” said Dipika.
The former World No. 10 in women’s singles gave credit to the Indian team’s foreign coach, Chris Walker of England.
“A big credit to Chris as he got on to the court to play and was of great help. Before the Asian mixed doubles, we struggled to play as there were not many players of our standard. But it was so nice when Chris chipped in to play, and lots of credit goes to him for putting the team together. Whenever I need help, I reach out to Egypt’s [Mohammed] Ashraf, a former Indian team coach,” added Dipika.
Harinder was all praise for her mixed doubles partner. “She knew what to do, and the way she dominated the boys, deceiving them, was amazing. I should say that she handled me well. When I played badly, she didn’t put pressure on me. It boosted my performance. We fed off each other,” said Harinder.
The Asian Games will be a much tougher assignment, as the other teams will have analysed their games thoroughly. “After the Asian mixed doubles tournament, all the teams would have done their homework. We must train better and smarter,” said Harinder.
Dipika, however, felt that even though the CWG is way stronger than the Asian Games, it will still be very difficult. “The Asian mixed doubles were an eye-opener. We know what we have to do better. We have to go back to the drawing board. The Asian Games is a bigger goal. You still have Malaysia and Hong Kong breathing down our throats,” said Dipika.
Harinder was born in Chandigarh, but for 20 years he has been in Chennai. The 34-year-old, whose best world ranking has been 47, said whatever he is now is because of the Squash Rackets Federation of India and the Indian Squash Academy (ISA), now renamed the Indian Squash Triathlon Academy.
“For 20 years, I’ve been with ISA, and that has helped me to stay strong. SRFI and ISA have taken care of me like their own son. I have never felt out of place,” he said.
Both Dipika and Harinder’s singles careers have been on the downswing. Dipika has not played singles on the Pro Tour for the last four years, while injuries have stymied Harinder’s whenever it showed signs of progress.
Now, they are focused on bringing India its second gold medal in the Asian Games.
“I am sure we will be seeded No. 1 after we won the gold in the Asian mixed doubles. We are not thinking of winning but are keen to put in the hard work,” said Dipika.
The World Cup squash in mid-June in Chennai turned out to be a huge disappointment for India (it lost in the semifinals), but the performances of Dipika and Harinder in Hangzhou towards the end of June have come as a shot in the arm. They will soon start training again at the ISTA, Nehru Park, Chennai.
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