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The Rediff Interview/Joshna Chinnappa
'I played my best squash at the British Open'
February 13, 2003
Joshna Chinnappa is on a high. In January, she created history by becoming only the second Indian after Anil Nayar to win the British Open squash title, when she won the under-17 British Open junior crown. Nayar had won the men's title in 1965. Last week, she added another feather to her cap by winning the singles gold medal at the Asian junior championships in Pakistan, and also played a major role in India beating fancied Malaysia and winning the team championship in the event.
The 16-year-old was also part of the Indian women's squad which created history by bagging the silver at the Asian senior team championship in Kuala Lumpur. Her other accomplishments include winning the Malaysian under-17, Singapore under-17 and under- 19 titles and the Dutch Open.
Though tired after returning from Pakistan, Joshna spared some time to talk with rediff.com.
After the interview, her father Anjan said, "I spend lakhs of rupees to send her to 4-5 international tournaments a year. I wish she had more sponsors so that she could participate in more tournaments and gain more experience. Unfortunately, only cricketers get sponsors in India."
Between the British Open title and the Asian junior gold, which is more special to you?
Personally, the British Open is dearer to me, because the British Open is an international event while in the Asian juniors, I was competing against only players from Asia. At the British Open I played against opponents against whom I had not played much earlier, but at the Asian juniors I knew all my opponents.
Another thing is, I have been playing at the British Open for the last five years but couldn't win it in the earlier years. Only this year I won; I trained really hard this year.
Of course, the Asian juniors is also very special because we won the team event for the country.
How do you assess your games in these two events?
I played really well at the British Open. At the Asian juniors, I didn't have to stretch that much. Definitely, my game was much higher at the British Open.
How much did you enjoy your stay in Pakistan?
Islamabad is a beautiful place; I really liked it. We knew all the players who came to participate and we had a blast. On the last day all of us went out and, come to think of it, we were in the same bus with the Pakistanis. We had so much fun with them. There were a lot of common things between us: we enjoyed the same kind of music; we enjoyed the same kind of films and, above all, all of us were equally crazy! We got along so well with them...
Did it make you wonder why there is so much enmity between the two countries?
Yes, we did wonder. Because there was absolutely no difference between us. But then, it is up to the politicians!
How hard did you prepare for the Asian junior championship?
We prepared a lot, both physically and mentally. We had been training 4-5 hours a day for the tournament. To make us mentally strong, the coaches used to talk to us and teach us relaxation methods. I am glad that all the hard work finally got paid off.
Now, let me ask you about the British Open. What was on your mind when you went to England to participate in the under-17 championship? In 2001, you lost in the quarter-finals. Were you expecting to win this time?
Actually, I had gone there to participate in two tournaments; one in Scotland and the other in England. I lost in the semi-finals in the Scottish Open. At that time, I was playing the worst squash of my life. Though I had been training really hard in the last 2-3 months, I was playing quite badly. After losing the Scottish Open I was quite scared because everybody was telling me, 'now you must win the British Open'. Of course, I also wanted to win it.
At the Scottish Open, I had a back problem which was so bad that I couldn't stretch at all. But at the British Open, everything cleared marvellously well, and I played my best squash there.
You played your worst squash at the Scottish Open but played your best at the British Open. What brought about such a change? Was it just mental tuning?
I made several changes, like sleeping on the floor so that back was stretched. After that I started feeling well. I was more focussed at the British Open. I don't know how it happened but I was more focussed.
You said everybody wanted you to win the British Open after your semi-final loss at the Scottish Open. Did it put pressure on you?
I don't know. After I won my semi-final at the British Open, I knew that I had a 90 per cent chance to win the title. I had lost to the top seed the year before at the British and that was in the quarter-finals. So, after I beat her, I knew I had a great chance to win the Open.
How did you feel after you won the Open? You are only the second Indian to win the Open and that too after 37 years...
It was a great feeling. The atmosphere itself was good; everyone in the crowd supported me. You know, there were a lot of Indians to cheer us.
I knew earlier itself that if I won the Open, I would create history. I was extremely happy after the win but unlike in the past, I didn't jump up and down much. I don't know why. I was pretty quiet. Everybody told me to freak out. Yeah, I did later, and I shopped more than I should have! I love buying a lot of clothes and accessories, you know.
Do you feel very bad when you lose a tournament?
I feel bad if it is a loss at a major tournament. Then I tell myself that I will do better in my next tournament. I do analyse my games thoroughly and try to find out the reasons for my loss. Six months ago I never cared about wins or losses. But since I had been losing so many tournaments in the last few months, I was feeling bad.
I lost the Senior Nationals; I lost the Scottish Open. If I had lost the British Open also I would have felt very bad. In fact, I had reached a point where I wondered whether it was worth going to Scotland and Britain to play, because there were too many losses in the last few months. Finally, the British Open was a big boost to me.
You won the National championship when you were 14 and 15, but lost to a much senior player this year. What went wrong this time?
I made too many unforced errors. I didn't have a proper game plan. When I looked back at my losses, I found out that my whole game was not going well; I was not getting my shots properly. Nothing was happening properly for me.
I really do not know what happened at the British Open. Suddenly, everything fell into place and I was playing like I was doing before. I was more jumpy and energetic, and more determined to win.
Do you feel luck also plays a major role in the way you play?
Yes, I was a bit lucky there. I think there was some power above me that helped me play my best game. I was desperate to win the British Open because I knew my name would go down if I didn't win it. So, I was lucky.
Who accompanies you when you travel abroad?
My dad used to come with me. Then I asked him to stop coming and told my mother to come along.
She is much cooler! Then, to Amsterdam I went alone!
How's it travelling alone?
It is so much better, you know. You get a lot of money to shop! But this time to the British and the Scottish Opens, the coach came with us. My dad wanted come but I said no.
Do you feel tense when your parents are there to see you play?
I am tense when my dad is there; but when my mom is there, I am relaxed.
I have heard you started playing at a very young age because you used to go with your father to the Madras Cricket Club every day...
I used to go the Madras Cricket Club with my dad ever since I was three or four. I used to play with the other children then. We used to jump in the court and disturb others. We used to play squash as per our own rules. Our rule was to take the ball after 2-3 bounces!
Slowly, we started playing properly, and then, from the age of eight, I found that I liked the game a lot. I think I chose squash only because I grew up watching the game first and then playing it.
When did you decide to take up the game seriously?
When I reached the final of the Junior Nationals, at 10, I decided to take up the game seriously. That was in 1996.
What are your future plans?
Hereafter, I plan to play higher age-group tournaments. Then comes the World juniors (under-19) in Cairo in August which I am looking forward to. I want to reach the top six there. I want to get into the women's circuit in the next one year or so. I want to be a professional by 2004.
How much did the presence of coaches Major Manian and Cyrus Poncha help your game?
A lot. My fitness has improved at least by eight per cent. I was not doing much physical work-outs till the coaches arrived. Mentally also, I became much stronger. But I guess my game on court has to improve much more.
Now that you are playing a lot, does it not affect your life as a teenager?
It does, but I don't mind, because I decided at the age of 10 itself that I wanted to be a professional squash player.
Do you have any heroes?
My hero is Jonathan Powell of Canada, who is the world number one. I like his personality on court. After each game he comes out and smokes! He is really cool. We teenagers are very excited to see him do all that weird stuff! I have not met him in person yet. When I meet him, I will him go and tell him, 'you are so cool'!
PHOTOGRAPHS: Sreeram Selvaraj