In the previous 14 senior national squash finals Joshna Chinappa has featured in – winning all but one — a staggering 10 were against a new opponent. In this year’s final she played Sachika Ingale, another new finalist. Interestingly enough, Dipika Pallikal, the only Indian woman ranked higher than Chinappa’s world No.21, slotted at 16, has played and lost three consecutive finals (2006-08) against the senior player.
Subsequently, the consistency at which Chinappa has been reaching the final, and the fact that there is no prominent challenger at home begs the question if the women’s flag in India is being waved by just the two Chennai girls.
Curiously, of the 10 finalists Joshana has played all these years, only Pallikal, 2013 runner-up Aparajitha Balamurukan and Ingale continue to be on the professional circuit. The rest followed a trail leading towards an exit from the sport altogether.
“Most of the girls who get to the finals are young, and brimming with potential. But after that it’s just a matter of prioritising for them,” says 13-time champion Chinappa.
Higher education is often the choice instead of a career in squash, as was the case with Vaidehi Reddy, Chinappa’s first finals victim, back in 2000.
Reddy travelled to the United States before pursuing a further degree in the United Kingdom, before effectively leaving the game. The 2004 finalist V Anvesha Reddy stayed on to compete in the 2010 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games before applying for a masters degree in the UK.
Of the recent runner-ups, 2010 finalist Saumya Karki has shifted base to Harvard University on a scholarship. Arjuna awardee Anaka Alankamony, who won a bronze in the women’s team event at the 2010 Asian Games, has also moved to the United States, enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania after losing to Chinappa in the 2009 and 2012 finals. “American colleges offer better scholarships to Indian students, but they don’t allow them to play on the circuit as professionals. The players can still play, but whatever prize money they win has to be given to charity,” explains Vaman Apte, reputed Mumbai coach who has mentored India No.2 Mahesh Mangaonkar and has watched a generation of Mumbai girls reach the threshold of breakthroughs in squash only to leave it all when shifting abroad.
Financial prospects invariably form a sharp reason for leaving the sport. Indian national coach Cyrus Poncha laments the difficulty with which the coaching fraternity is forced to let go of potential long-term players for their personal endeavours. “Squash is unfortunately not a well financed sport. It is expensive because you have to travel a lot. And at the same time there isn’t much support for players. So it’s hard for us coaches to coax players to continue playing and we lose many in the 19-20 age bracket,” says the 2005 Dronacharya awardee.
The 2003 and 2005 finalists, Sonali Philip and Dr Deepali Anwekar-Parikh picked careers outside of the sport. The latter took up dentistry, yet continues to accompany her children to their junior-level squash events. Philip on the other hand had taken up a coaching role during her time in England.
Four-time national champion Mekhala Subedar, along with Pallikal and Balamurukan, are the only ones who have survived what is akin to squash’s Bond girl curse — where the actresses sizzled playing their glam part in one edition of the franchise but their subsequent feature films end as failures.
So even as Chinappa has become a Nationals great in India owing to the 14 successful titles she has won, her opponents in the final have fallen along the way and drifted to oblivion.
In the most recent summit clash, Chinappa’s 11-4, 11-6, 11-6 win will lead a few hopeful eyes to stay on 20-year-old Delhi girl Sachika Ingale, willing her on to continue beyond that one-off appearance in the Nationals final.