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Joshna goes for gold, history

PTI

The last time an Indian made the final of the Asian squash championship, Roger Federer was yet to turn pro and Frank Sinatra was still alive.

As Joshna Chinappa dropped her racket and held up clenched fists in celebration, India abandoned its 21-year contentment with silver. Going into the final, the Indian Squash Academy (ISA) Chennai stablemates Joshna and Dipika Pallikal were assured of medals. It was just a question of who would go for gold and write history. Joshna, currently the highest-ranked Indian player at No 14, prevailed in a tight five-game encounter 13-15, 12-10, 11-13, 11-4, 11-4.

"This is my biggest win against Dipika and one of my biggest wins ever," Joshna said after the game.

Misha Grewal was the last Indian player to make the final of the tournament, ending with silver, in 1996. "That's how long it has taken Indian squash to reach where it should," alluded national coach Cyrus Poncha to the two decade plus wait for an individual Asian title.

Playing at the Express Avenue mall before a packed home crowd, both the Chennai girls had hopes to shelter and expectations to live up to. Together, they won the 2014 Commonwealth doubles gold before Dipika ran over Joshna to win an individual bronze at the Asian Games later that year. "This is definitely the most special win against Dipika as it comes in the final of one of the biggest events," Joshna says. "It's always special playing against her and it's not going to be the last time I will be playing against her."

India also ran into some luck with nine-time champion Nicol David not featuring in the tournament in Chennai this time. An all-Indian women's final would have been a long shot with the former world No 1 in the mix. "Definitely it was made easier by Nicol not being here. This was the perfect opportunity for us," Poncha admitted.

Caged in a glass-walled court, backs turned to viewers, faces turned away from each other, players thwacked the white ball on to the front wall with relentless speed and power, interrupted only by referees' call on strokes and lets. It's that window of a couple of seconds which allow players to catch their breath, celebrate, fume or just drop their heads, placing their palms on the back wall, facing the referees and convey their dismay over an outrageous call. The latter did take place a fair number of times on Sunday.

"In the third game, I was not happy with the last two points. Honestly, I should have won that game. I didn't agree with a lot of the calls that happen on PSA," Joshna said on the referring. "They have become very strict. If you don't clear on the ball, you get a stroke against you. There are many calls which went against me and against Dipika as well. It was both ways as well. But I fortunately don't have to deal with it a lot of the time."

"I had lost the last few times (to Dipika). This time, I really came prepared to play her." Joshna on countering Dipika

It was a match that was built to go down to the wire. Splitting the first two games, a lovely crosscourt volley drop had Dipika close in the gap to 7-8 in the third before some tight rallies tied them at 10-10. Gifting a point to Joshna by trying to play the sidewall off her backhand, Dipika fell behind again, but hung on to take the advantage and open up a 2-1 lead. She found herself staring at a five-point deficit thereafter in the fourth game before she a flung a half drive. Joshna was awarded a free point - given to a player who's impeded from playing a shot - which saw her climb to a five-point cushion at 7-2. From there on, Dipika couldn't catch up.

"I came with a very specific plan to play Dipika," Joshna says. "I had lost the last few times. This time, I really came prepared to play her. The first three games were really close. It could have gone either way. But I came back strongly and won the next two convincingly. I put her under pressure in the final two games."

Consultant coach Achraf El Karagui - the Egyptian, who was roped in by the national federation midway through last year - watched the proceedings intently, and refrained from walking up to the players or talking to them between games. He couldn't, after all, risk an allegiance, but admitted that he was pleased with the quality of play. "It's top class stuff. It's what I have been working towards," he says. Egypt has been a powerhouse in the sport, with six of its players currently featuring in the men's top 10 rankings. "The way forward for Indian squash is to strengthen its U-17 and U-19 programmes because it's the potential that needs to be tapped. That's where the future lies."

Sunday morning's practice session with Dipika and Joshna was a routine affair, Achraf adds, not lending itself greatly to the impending battle for history. "They're used to playing with and against each other," he says, "Only that this time I knew either way, we're coming back a winner."