Asian Squash: Two friends and their fight for glory

Dipika Pallikal and Joshna Chinappa know each other since they were kids and have brought many medals for India. But familiarity and friendship will be put aside when the two fight for India's first ever gold medal at the Asian Championship.

Dipika Pallikal (left) and Joshna Chinappa have been India's top two squash players for more than a decade now.   -  M. Vedhan

Dipika Pallikal and Joshna Chinappa have been playing together and against each other for close to 15 years now. They know each other’s games in and out and their careers have pretty much panned out similarly.

They have had their differences but they are a team and have brought many medals for India, including the 2014 Commonwealth Games gold in women’s doubles and were part of the gold medal-winning women’s team in the 2016 South Asian Games. Joshna and Dipika have been the top two squash players of the country for more than a decade now.

“I have seen Dipika as a 10-year-old with those little bangs and long hair. We have been playing each other for almost 15 years, I guess," Joshna said, reminding us of the familiarity of the battle that is on cards on Sunday.

Yes, the two have played each a gazillion times before but the stakes are higher this time around. It is a battle to claim India’s first ever Asian Individual Squash Championship gold and both will be desperate to have their name embossed on a shield of history.

Joshna didn’t want to read too much into the match between the friends/rivals. “I don't think it will be emotional. She's not my wife, you know. We are always prepared to play each other. I am just looking forward to playing another match. I obviously know her game really well. I just want to enjoy the moment and play well."

India’s best-ever finish till date had been a silver medal effort from Misha Grewal in 1996 and that record will be rewritten as the two made it an all-Indian final with emphatic wins in their respective semifinal clashes. Saurav Ghosal contributed his bit by making the final in the men’s category by beating defending champion Leo Au on Sunday.

"Two Indians in the final has never happened before. So, obviously it's a big day for Indian squash. The Asian individual championship is the same as the Asian Games and all the players are the same. Obviously, Nicol (Daviid) isn't here and that makes a big difference. But all the others are here. This is our competition, and it is good to know where we stand," the 14-time national champion Joshna said.

Dipika, too, spoke of the Asian Games and their common focus. “We are on track for next year’s Asian games. Obviously Nicol is missing here. I feel these events give us so much confidence going into the Games. For me and Joshna, the ultimate aim is to win a gold medal in Asian Games,” Dipika, who won a bronze in the 2014 Asian Games after beating Joshna in an acrimonious quarterfinal, said.   

“At the end of the day, the government wants us to win medals and we want to win ourselves. Dipika and I have a good partnership because there is also a team event at the Asian Games. I feel we have a good chance both in the individual and team championships," Joshna spoke with optimism of their shared goals.

India coach Acraf El Karargui was also a happy man at the end of the day. Three of his wards had met the expectations of the people and made it to the final. He was particularly high on praise of the women. “Dipika and Joshna are playing really well. It’s high quality stuff coming from both of them. They deserve to be top 10 players in the world,” the proud coach said.

All these days, the Indian players could fall back on the sound advice and player strategies from coach Acraf. Saurav will have the Egyptian by his side on Sunday as well, but Joshna and Dipika will obviously be left to fend for themselves in Sunday’s final. There won’t be any favourites; their favourite coach will all likely be enjoying his cuppa when the two meet in the final.

But the job is not done yet. “The two will be back on the court tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. and will practice together in the mall. There won’t be changes to that routine,” the coach said.