Squash player Dipika Pallikal will now train in India with coach Sarah Fitz-Gerald guiding her along.
There’s not a pleasanter sight to a travelling girl’s world-weary eyes than a solid,sturdy cupboard in a steadfast corner of the house. For Dipika Pallikal it signifies coming home to India,to Chennai. It’s also about all the lesser packing and unpacking that had become integral to her life when she based herself out of Melbourne,travelling to train with Sarah Fitz-Gerald,a five-time squash world champion,and presently her coach. The 22-year-old – who has been living the proverbial suitcased-life since she was 13 with stints in Egypt,England and now Down Under – didn’t really mind the wonderful vistas of Melbourne,driving around its bylanes,walking its streets and shopping for groceries,even as Fitz-Gerald offered her the counsel and comfort of a second home. But Pallikal’s back for now,to resume training in her hometown. Back to the permanence of Chennai and her cupboard.
“Sarah wants me to be at home a bit more now,and spend more time with family. She’ll train me in Chennai. She already travels with me for the big events like the Worlds,but I’m happy to be back home,” Pallikal says,in between some training sessions in Mumbai with former India No1 and now coach Ritwik Bhattacharya,before she flies out later in the week to prepare for competing at the British Open this month.
Besides Dipika being keen on returning home – missing India and friends back here a tad bit,the coach also reckoned that with her ward having cracked the Top 10 and fallen out of it swiftly,it was the right time to piece together a traing sked in Chennai,keeping long-term feasibility in mind. Having jogged upto the Top 10 mark speedily,rather than trudging to it like many others,Pallikal finds herself at No 15 again. Her career-high in December last year,now has long months of mid-Top 20 on either sides,and as such her sixth title in January this year at the Canadian city of Winnipeg,had come as a relief after a itchy few title-less months. “Ranking has been up and down,and most recently slipped down. I got into the Top 10 at age 21,so it all happened very fast. The Canada title came at the right time,but it’s a big season ahead,starting May right upto December where I play back-to-back tournaments.”
While the big tourneys pose their own challenges,Pallikal has decided to stick to the 15000 – 20000 USD prize brackets,even as draws get stiffer with her tricky ranking,after climbing the rankings on the back of results in big tourneys rather than stringing lesser-level titles. “Earlier I’d start out with qualifiers. Now it’s a new experience heading into a tournament and meeting one of the top ranked players first up,because of my ranking and realising that there are no easy first rounds. Hitting the high notes in the first or second round right away – I’m still getting used to that,” she explains. “I know this will get easier when I’m 25-26 years old,and that I can aim at being the No 1 in the next 3-4 years,but this is the toughest phase of the up-climb,” she adds. The youngster’s steadily learning to put store on consistency rather than rejoicing in the intermittent flashy big one-off win over a higher ranked player.
Consequently,Dipika Pallikal’s played her fair share of nervy match-balls – losing from winning positions,and pulling off a few victories from seemingly despondent perches. “It’s only been two years since I left the juniors circuit so I’m still learning the ropes of the seniors competition,” she says.
The most evident change in Pallikal’s game has been her jerk-free swing on the backhand – a smoother action – though the biggest lesson she’s learnt is in the tense moments of finishing. “You realise that a game’s not over till hands are shaken,” she says recalling some of the tight end-games over the last few months. Her coach’s world-winning credentials and hardcore champion mentality is shepherding her through these arduous passages of play. “She’s played the sport at the highest level,so she knows exactly what I’m going through. She tells me precisely how to deal with those match situations,” she says. Pallikal’s always been known for her fast-paced,attacking game in India,but training under Fitz-Gerald has drilled in that sense of discretion in applying that attacking instinct. “Sarah always says there’s a thin line between knowing and believing you can beat the big players. I have some work to do before I get to the latter,” she adds. Owing to her longish juniors career – since she started early and was quickly India’s top player in age-groups – Pallikal grew up idolising some of the players she now comes up against in that intense bull-ring of the glass courts. Going from fan-girl to a nerveless,bold opponent was another distance Fitz-Gerald helped her charge,traverse. “She explained that on court it’s all business. So even though initially I used to be in awe of some of them,that quickly went away since I was matching paces with them,” says Pallikal,one of the youngest girls in the Top 15 currently.
Women typically peak in squash in their late-20s,and the Indian’s happy she already has some serious experience of tough play reaching the finals of the team-event at Worlds and winning the Asian gold. “There’s also fewer of the Egyptians right now so it’s a little easier on the world! Also,slowly people have started beating Nicol David (World No 1),so I can start dreaming of that day too,” she says. She’s also gotten over the phase where she wouldn’t speak to anyone for days after a typically biting loss. “I don’t dwell on losses much now.”
Back home now,Pallikal is looking forward to travelling alongside city-mate and friend Joshna Chinappa. “I always looked up to her as a senior,but now I’m excited about playing tournaments with her.” Joshna’s also her doubles-partner,and Dipika digs the expanded-court,pairs format unlike most squash players she knows. “I love doubles. Sarah (coach) hates it. It’s a lot more fun,and I love playing with Joshna (doubles) and Saurav Ghosal (mixed doubles. We’ve grown up training in the same arena,so it’s great to play with them.” These ocassions are few as the only time that doubles counts for anything much serious is CWG doubles. She calls Ghosal a ‘best friend forever’ – the ‘3 am can-call’ kinds. “It’s nice to have very good friends in squash and I know he’ll always be there for me. He’s in Top 20 now,and I hope he rises in the rankings soon,” she says of her former academy-mate.
In Mumbai,she is glad of the chance to train with city-based former squash pro Ritwik Bhattacharya. “He was a pioneer of sorts for us playing and winning on PSA. As a junior I used to be scared of him,but as a coach and friend now,he’s great help. He has so much knowledge of the sport and puts in such hard work even as a coach. But the best thing is he’s easy to approach for help.” Back amongst friends in India now – though she intends to travel to Australia whenever needed – Pallikal aims to find herself a squash court in Chennai and resume training in familiar environs. And going back to fewer wardrobe anarchies that result from makeshift cupboards in different parts of the world.
“The real mental part of the game starts now”
Sarah Fitz-Gerald is a five-time world champ and a Commonwealth Games champion,and currently guiding Dipika Pallikal’s career into the upper notches of the world rankings. Pallikal spent a year based out of Australia,which saw her crack the Top 10.
Excerpts from an interview with Fitz-Gerald:
Q. What was your contribution in helping Dipika make the Top 10?
I would like to think I’ve helped her instill some confidence in herself. But also to think about her shot selection as she is no longer playing junior squash where cheap shots are winners. We speak before matches and in between times about her game. It is important to Dipika to have people who support and care for her,this keeps her menatlly stable and composed.
Q. Did fitness play a key role?
Her self belief in her ability is her best asset right now,also her natural power when driving the ball. Dipika’s physical fitness is still an area that needs consistent work if she is to keep moving up the rankings. Physical fitness leads to mental fitness.
Q. How tough is it to stay in the Top 10?
Dipika had a good year with some excellent results. These results have given her confidence which make her opponents wary when playing against her. Dipika has put in the effort with working with physical instructors,psycologists,and travelling to Australia to train. She is also aware her recent form has made top players wary and nervous about playing against her,this knowledge can be used positively. Staying in Top 10 is the tough part now and it gets even tougher to move up the rankings. She has to be even more diligent in her training which focuses her mind even more….the real mental part of the game starts now.
Q. What aspects of her game have improved a lot?
Dipika’s best qualities are her power and strength,her natural ability to volley and quiet determination to succeed. She has set goals for herself which she has achieved. She’s a good fighter when down. Dipika is learning to play smart and world class squash.