Ritwik Bhattacharya is undoubtedly the face of Indian squash. He is a five-time national champion, and was the first-ever squash player from India to participate in the Commonwealth Games. We got a chance to catch up with the flamboyant sportsman for an interview:
The infrastructure and facilities for squash in India are perhaps not as good as they are in other countries. How much of a stumbling block was that when you first took to the game?
I was lucky because my father was in the Indian Air Force in my early years, and then I moved to RIMC, Dehradun, where we had some of the best facilities in the country especially if you loved sport and wanted to play. I was really lucky to have great parents, friends and teachers, as well as sponsors like Mr. Samir Thapar (JCT), who encouraged my passion for the game and even allowed me to dream of playing on the World Tour and represent India. I have played on cement-floored courts with no lights and wooden rackets, so the absence of world-class infrastructure was never a limiting factor. If you really love the sport, you will find a way to succeed.
After your numerous successes on the tour, you stopped playing two years ago. What was the reason for this change of heart?
I stopped playing squash about two years ago. I was disillusioned with the existing structure in the country, especially when I wasn’t selected for the New Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2012. The Games were one of my main goals for which I was working single-mindedly for more than four years. We still have many issues regarding the support that players get, even those at the top of the pile. Even today, many of the top-ranked players representing India are pretty much on their own, without any help from anybody. These champions are fighting too many battles on a daily basis. I realised that I have a larger role in helping the next generation. Also, all the politics and negativity reduced the joy that I got while playing the sport, without which I wasn’t able to perform at my best. This, combined with some serious injuries, convinced me after much introspection that I needed a break.
Today my body has healed and I’m playing some of the best squash of my life. I play everyday, while helping the next generation be the best players they can be and learning from my mistakes. If it took me five years to learn something that the next generation can pick up in one or two years, then I think that is progress.
You were seen in the popular TV reality series ‘Khatron Ke Khiladi’. Tell us something about that experience.
It was a great experience. Brazil is a fantastic country and I got to spend a month there. I made the most of it and learnt so much about myself as well. We had an extremely professional crew from India and South Africa who created some mind-blowing adventure stunts for us. I really loved it as it was so different from anything I had ever done before, because hanging under helicopters, climbing up waterfalls or dragging yourself under trains aren’t things you get to do everyday.
Squash is one of the few sports that doesn’t form a part of the Olympics. What do you think is the reason for that, and are you optimistic about squash getting an entry into the Games in the future?
Squash is an ideal Olympic sport. It has all the ingredients to be part of the Games, as it’s played all around the world by all age groups, and has a wonderful community all around the world who really care about the sport. The top players are true ambassadors of their countries as well as our sport, and the general atmosphere and spirit of the game is wonderful.
The WSF has taken huge strides in meeting all the criteria required to qualify as an Olympic sport, like organising Under-21 events as well as holding successful events at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, Pan-American Games, European Games, African Games, etc.
Today, I would say that squash is the number one sport in the world not to be part of the Olympics, and I believe that in 2020 we will have squash in the Olympics for the first time.
Many people think of squash as something of a crossover between tennis and badminton. What do you think of that assessment?
It’s fairly accurate. Badminton is primarily played with the wrist and tennis with the shoulder, whereas squash is with the forearm and elbow, with a combination of the wrist as well as the shoulder.
Squash is also the only racket sport that is a contact sport, as both players have to play around each other.
In terms of the level of athleticism required for them, rate these sports in order of difficulty: tennis, badminton, and squash. Also, why did you choose squash?
All three have their respective challenges and difficulties. For example, an average tennis match would last between three and four hours, but there are way more breaks, whereas in badminton you are in the air much more. Squash, according to me, is physical chess, and is one of the most anaerobic sports in the world.
It eventually depends from person to person. I played much more tennis at an early age, and then in boarding school found myself playing more squash, as I enjoyed it the most. A lot of my early improvement was due to my time at R.I.M.C., and the help from the senior officers and players from the Indian Armed Forces.
Many players from Asia have achieved a legendary status in the sport of squash. Do you think there is any particular reason why so many strong squash players emerge from this region?
The likes of Jehangir Khan (Pakistan), Jansher Khan (Pakistan), Nicol David (Malaysia), Qamar Zaman (Pakistan) are legends of the game. We could have many more legends though. The talent exists in Asia. Players who grow up in hot conditions have much more ‘feel’ and ‘ball control’. There are a lot of amazing talents, but Asia has a lot to develop in the sport. Moreover, countries like China, Japan, Korea, and Indonesia will all get much more active once squash becomes an Olympic sport.
What are your goals for the remainder of your career? Are you consciously trying to achieve any specific milestone?
I would like to see the Indian team win the World Team Championships to begin with. Towards that I will contribute my time and effort, and even play again if it’s required. I am going to play doubles at the next Commonwealth Games. For now I’m injury-free, and funnily enough, improving everyday while coaching.
I would also love to see over 50,000 kids play squash in India and about 2000 public and well-maintained pay-and-play courts all over the country. Indians will do very well in squash in the coming years, and I am confident that we will have a world champion in the next eight years.