Nicol is the David they told you about, the one who slayed myriad Goliaths. The waif-like Nicol David of Malaysia, who took on the combined muscular might of European and Australian squash challengers over two decades and beat them hollow, had always been the role model for Joshna Chinappa. At 15 — for half her lifetime now — Joshna has in fact been called the Nicol of India.
The highest form of respect in sport is beating the revered rival. And Joshna Chinappa played out of her skin to wear down and defeat squash’s reigning deity in the team championships on the biggest stage, the Asian Games that the sport can hope for, till it makes it to the Olympics.
In making the finals against Hong Kong, Joshna set herself up for the big gold.
In the course of her cresting and troughing career, Joshna — and Dipika Pallikal — outgrew the Squash & Rackets Federation of India’s national coach Cyrus Poncha. The two have been demanding a foreign coach who can professionally guide them at this stage of their careers — perhaps the peak, physically and psychologically for India’s two torchbearers.
Their calls for better expertise have gone unheeded — but putting the constant combat for what they deserve behind, Joshna decided to go win the biggest match of her career here at the Hall D of the Gelora Bung Karno. It takes immense self belief to beat a champion like Nicol, who is arguably greater than even Serena Williams — 8 World titles and 108 months as World No 1. They call her the Duracell Bunny, though Joshna Chinappa’s endless reserves of courage and conviction through the years, make her no less the fount of limitless energy.
It’s the strength of her character that has been a constant all these years.
At 11 years 8 months, she had told her father Anjan Chinappa to “get lost” if he gave in to the demands of officials who offered him a ‘favourable draw’ for his daughter if only she would be a “little flexible.” It was how Indian officialdom worked (buying any opposition). But standing upto her full 5’11” height, the young Joshna had told her worried father — who feared she’d be barred from tournaments — that she would throw away her racquet if he relented to any compromise or kowtowing only for her.
Anjan had always been a blunt and straightforward man — taking on the high and mighty if he thought that was needed. But like any other doting father, he had bitten his tongue when he realised his principled rage could harm his daughter’s career. Joshna would have none of it, and it was in the domestic four walls of her home that a fiery resolve to win fair had burnt inside the teenager. It helped that Nicol David, as role model, had been the epitome of fairplay and grace all her career, and Joshna looked upto no one but her.
On Friday though, Joshna saw Nicol only as an opponent. After losing to Annie Au in the individual event, an opponent she had beaten before, Joshna had broken down frustrated about the lack of coaching support in critical times, and called home depressed about the situation. It’s here that Anjan Chinappa would roar back to his cub, now grow up. “I told her nothing doing, don’t run away from what’s tough. You will stay put there, and you will play Nicol,” Anjan recalls of a fierce conversation on the phone.
Joshna is an introvert beyond her circle of solid friends, and has always needed a coach on the same wavelength as her. With the national coach not offering her the desired support, she has often turned to her father. “I reminded her that she had beaten Nicol in April, so she could do it again,” he says.
Except, the Asian Games at Jakarta is a bigger deal than winning in a distant Red Sea resort town of Egypt or a tour event in a different timezone. In the finals, she would face two match ball situations, and convert the one that mattered to win 12-0, 11-9, 6-11, 10-12, 11-9.
It has been a rough plod for Joshna who was a junior phenomenon making the finals of the British and World juniors. But besides the frustrating fighting with the federation, all the trauma and troubles, it was a decade of not reaching maximum potential.
“As a junior, most coaches said she was a diamond in the making, the Nicol of India. She was on the exact path, Nicol was going on. But life on the circuit can be tough. Plus the coaching situation was a bit like being with a player, but working against the player. In those scenarios you are up against a wall,” Anjan says. As if squash’s constricting four walls weren’t enough.
There was one aspect of the game that Nicol had in abundance, but Joshna lacked in. She was taking time in being a thinking player. “Trouble with the early Joshna was she always played to the gallery. She wouldn’t assess the mind of the opponent, and couldn’t ever shut off the crowd earlier,” Anjan says.
Anyone who watched Joshna graduate from juniors to seniors knew that her game was precariously hinging on a hit-hit-bang-bang philosophy — only because she was one of the hardest hitters on the circuit. It would need constant comparisons with Nicol David, for Anjan and sometime coach Malcolm Wilstrop to impress upon her that while she had all the strokes, she needed to use discretion and bring in mental-play if she had to win the big wins.
“I’d tell her ‘you are not a circus clown playing for the audience. You should be like a demon possessed – calm and controlled – like Nicol. She’s a tiny little thing, not as muscular as you, but she can make every big player dance to her tunes,” Anjan recalls.
Taller and stronger built than Nicol, Joshna would take her time, but the maturity was evident when she pulled herself back in the crucial moments after Nicol had levelled at 2-2. Once the victory was achieved, and India made the finals beating all expectations, she would send a crisp message to her father.
“Dad, I won.”
“Won with who?”
“I beat Nicol”
“What was the score?”
“3-2. I’m tired, I’ll speak later.”
It was typical Joshna, matter-of-fact, under-selling, calm and getting the job done.
Anjan recalls how his son Gaurav quit on badminton after seeing the father struggle and go through all those years of exhausting battles with India’s officialdom. “He was a southpaw, and 6 feet then. I thought he had a great future, but he couldn’t see me go through this and turned to become a heart surgeon. Begging referees, being nice to everyone – both my children disapproved,” Anjan says.
Being pliant and bending wasn’t something Joshna Chinappa had taken up squash for. Through three fortified, uncracking glass walls on Friday, the world saw just how unbending Joshna could be when she beat the legendary Nicol David.