Dipika Pallikal — Squashing stereotypes

For Dipika Pallikal Karthik, who made a triumphant return to squash, the goal now is to keep up and not burst into flames in trying to outdo herself. The twin gold medals from the World Doubles Championship in Glasgow are a statement of intent ahead of the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games.

Still coming to terms with two new members in her life, barely six months after their birth, Dipika Pallikal decided to dive back into the rigours of life as an active athlete.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT / PAUL ROBERTS

Dipika Pallikal Karthik was away from squash for three long years. Since 2006, Dipika’s world had been just squash, and her life moved gears to accommodate the sport and her ambitions in it. However, something snapped in 2018, something about the race didn’t feel exciting anymore. Dipika was not done for good, but she wanted the tape to pause.

READ: Dipika wins two gold medals at WSF World Doubles Championships

In April this year, she picked up the squash racket again, but much had changed — the game was more competitive, training techniques and routines had evolved, and Dipika herself had two new priorities alongside her squash career — an interior design boutique which she founded with her best friend, and her twin sons Kabir and Zian.

Rich dividends: The Indian squash team that returned with two gold medals from the World Doubles Championships in Glasgow.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT / PAUL ROBERTS

 

When she landed in Glasgow for the World Doubles Championship, a little nervousness was understandable, playing against the best who had only gotten better during her time away. However, her greatest demon was the person looking back at her in the mirror.

“When you get back to a sport, especially after motherhood, a lot of people tend to just try and be like, ‘I was hitting the ball like this, why am I not hitting it like that anymore? Or, I was lifting 150 kg deadlifts, why am I not doing that anymore?’ On a normal basis, you always compare yourself to others. But when you've been at your best a few years back and when you've taken that break, it's very easy to just float that way and go why am I not doing what I used to do?” says Dipika.

The world was asking those same questions of her — if she could still keep up. Her answer? Twin gold medals — one in the mixed doubles with Saurav Ghosal and the other in the women’s doubles with Joshna Chinappa — both longtime partners and, in Saurav’s case, family (Saurav is married to Dipika’s sister).

Finding joy

Dipika has always meandered through life on her own terms. She uprooted her life and moved to Egypt when she needed better facilities to train; she stepped away from the National Championships when she was on top of the game for three years because the prize money was steeply lower for the women. Likewise, she stepped away from her career when she was at her peak physically.

“There were a few reasons for the break. Top of the list was wanting to start a family with Dinesh (Karthik) because, at the end of the day, I am married to a cricketer,” Dipika says as she negotiates life in the Royal Challengers Bangalore bio-bubble. Karthik plays for RCB in the Indian Premier League.

“If I was married to a normal guy who goes to the office, who can take a break and can travel with me then starting a family would have been easier,” she adds with a wry smile.

Dipika’s career wasn’t giving her much joy at that point either.

“I think I was stagnated in my career. I wasn’t moving up; I wasn’t moving down. I was probably around the 20s (in the rankings). I wasn’t winning big matches. It was never about me not putting in the work. I’ve always been someone who puts 100 per cent effort into my training and goes out of the way to do different things, to work with different coaches. But I think for those one-and-a-half to two years, I wasn’t getting the results I wanted, which culminated in me not enjoying what I was doing.”

Fun times: Dipika enjoys a game of cricket with Anushka Sharma during the ongoing IPL. “There were a few reasons for the break. Top of the list was wanting to start a family with Dinesh (Karthik) because, at the end of the day, I am married to a cricketer,” Dipika says as she negotiates life in the Royal Challengers Bangalore bio-bubble. Karthik plays for RCB in the IPL.   -  SPORTZPICS/IPL

 

Dipika remembers talking to her husband, who has some experience in revitalising a sports career in more ways than one over the years. In fact, Karthik is in the middle of a purple patch right now, enough to warrant demands for a callback to the national side.

“Dinesh told me there is no use in quitting squash if I still enjoyed it as I was only going to be inviting more misery. He nudged me to take a break because it was not giving me any happiness at the time, wait it out and see if I was miserable not playing. Then I’d know for sure that I’d want to get back,” she says.

Motherhood and medals

Still coming to terms with two new members in her life, barely six months after their birth, Dipika decided to dive back into the rigours of life as an active athlete. The Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and the Asian Games in China (now postponed), were old elements of her vision board, perhaps sidelined for a while but never removed. However, the return was anything but rosy.

“After that three-year break, you obviously get a little comfier with just training once a day, or training one day and resting for two. The hardest part is to just try and fit in three sessions a day every day,” she says. There are also feeds and naps for the boys that need to be factored into an already packed schedule, but when on tour, there’s a big chunk of that she does not get to be around for.

READ: Moms who balance parenting and sports careers

“The main thing with my kids is that there are a lot of sacrifices that come with being an athlete and a mother at the same time or being a parent — even in Dinesh’s case. You must mentally get ready to be okay to miss a feed, to know it’s alright to miss a playtime, it’s alright to travel and play tournaments and leave them at home with whoever takes care of them. I was very clear that I didn’t want to feel this guilt because at the end of the day, it’s not like I’m just taking off and going for a holiday. It’s about responsibility at the end of the day. Hopefully, one day, they realise that their parents had to give a bit more time to their sport than them,” she adds.

The pleasures of pressure

A full plate is not new to Dipika. She enjoys, and perhaps even revels in pressure.

“I like these responsibilities. Maybe I perform a little better with that responsibility on my shoulders. I wanted to be good enough to match Saurav and Joshna and that drove me in Glasgow. I know a lot of young girls and women are looking at me and want me to stand up for what they think is right and I can’t let them down and that keeps me going,” says Dipika.

The sporting world today is replete with women juggling professional careers and motherhood. However, with squash and Indian sports, Dipika feels there’s a long way to go, but doesn’t feel she has enough bargaining power yet. “To be honest, there are a lot of battles to be fought in Indian sports, and obviously being a mother, it’s not been easy on us. But I think right now, the focus is on the Commonwealth Games because there are just a lot of things to do. Until we try and prove ourselves, win medals, I don’t think people will really take my situation seriously,” says Dipika, winner of multiple Commonwealth and Asian Games medals, more than 10 tour titles, and winner of the prestigious Arjuna and Padma Shri honours.

Managing great expectations

Given the significance she has now attached to success at the CWG in Birmingham and the Asian Games, staying realistic and going a little easy on herself are Dipika’s priorities.

The goal now is to keep up and not burst into flames in trying to outdo herself. The Glasgow experience only validated that outlook for Dipika. The twin golds were also about making a statement of intent to rivals and themselves.

“Saurav was telling me that we must try and create that aura as a team where even though I’ve been away for three years, everyone has to say, ‘Oh, you know what? She’s still the same, she’s still hitting the ball well, she’s still moving well and she’s dangerous.’ And that was in my mind as well. To show them that we’re still a very dangerous team and that Dipika can still play some squash.”

Torchbearers: Indian squash has come a long way, with a generous dose of bumps along the way but one part has remained constant through the years — the Saurav-Joshna-Dipika trio.   -  PTI

 

What the future holds

Indian squash has come a long way, with a generous dose of bumps along the way but one part has remained constant through the years — the Saurav-Joshna-Dipika trio. These three are still the most recognisable faces on the circuit and the most consistent – something that scares and amuses the new mom.

“I keep saying to Josh that we might probably have to come back in four years again and play doubles together. We are obviously trying to inspire a lot of girls and youngsters to take up this sport. But it’s very hard to see a future in squash because you can’t make a career out of it unless you’re in the top ten or a top 20,” she says. “Even at the top, it’s all break-even. You still pay for your tickets; you still pay for hotels. That’s obviously one of the reasons why we don’t have a lot of juniors coming up and wanting to take this sport seriously.”

Dipika was earlier approached by Ivy League colleges in the USA where squash is both popular and lucrative.

“Recruitment makes it easier for players to go there and train with the best, to be a part of college and then decide if they want to play professionally or get a job. It’s very tempting. The three of us have been in that situation too but I think our main goal was always to play for the country and professionally,” she says.

Dipika does not deny there’s talent brimming up from the grassroots and hopes India has a surprise package waiting to snap at their heels for the next edition of the Commonwealth Games.

However, at 30, she is certain about not being done with squash anytime soon.

“I realistically can play in the next Commonwealth Games. The aim is to play squash for the next few years and see how it goes. The bigger picture is to stay there for the Commonwealth Games, but you never know. You never know with your body, you never know with injuries, you never know with anything. So, it’s all about taking it one day, one tournament, and one year at a time.”

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