By all accounts, the WSF World Junior Squash Championship held at Eindhoven in the Netherlands provided a rich competitive experience for the Indians.
International exposure was a key objective when India decided to field a maximum of 11 players, including six girls for the championship, which this year witnessed individual competitions for boys and girls and team events for girls.
The Netherlands was not the original destination for this championship, but because Egypt could not host it in Cairo, the event was re-routed to Europe. It is a measure of Egypt’s depth of talent that a change of venue did not make a difference to its fortunes.
The country bagged everything that was at stake barring the junior men’s title, which remained in the hands of the Peruvian sensation Diego Elias.
Surrounded by such immense power in the sport, it would have been naïve to expect India to cause ripples in the pond, but the attmept was to compare strengths and be enriched by the experience.
Special mentions go to Harshit Jawanda in the women’s section and Velavan Senthilkumar in the men’s. They were the only two players who could progress to the third round in their respective categories.
Southpaw Velavan, fresh from the ISA junior open title-win in Chennai, looked in shape to do one better but despite showing the right temperament, skill and fight against the seeded Jordanian Mohammad Al Sarraj fell short of victory. He cited pain in the palm of his playing arm for the slip. The match was one, however, that national coach Cyrus Poncha, who accompanied the team, thought reflected the Indian’s potential to go far.
Jawanda, the reigning Indian junior champion, spent a significant amount of time in Chennai to hone her skills. She faced American Reeham Sedky in the third round. “The power of the strokes melted away Harshit’s intents straightaway,”said coach Poncha.
The team competition came as the second phase of the championship and the focus was totally on the girls here. Placed seventh on the last occasion in Poland two years ago, there was an inner desire from the Indian contingent to try and improve on this.
Seeded seventh and placed after the USA in a pool which also had Finland and Australia, India’s immediate task was to cross the pool-stage and come into the top eight. This was achieved with a measure of confidence.
Mention has to be made not only of Jawanda, but also Akanksha Salunkhe for the way they shaped for big moments that pleased the team officials Poncha and Surbhi Misra. With eventual winner Egypt as its opponent in the top-eight draw, India knew defeat was certain. The aim then became improving the placings. It was here that the biggest drama for India in the championship unfolded.
India was pitted against New Zealand, a team which it had beaten in Poland last year to finish 7th, a feat it could have repeated. The tie score was 1-1 after Jawanda had undone the damage of Adya Advani’s loss. The fate then hinged on the 16-year old Salunkhe, who played her heart out against Juee Bhide to take the score to a point away from victory to India.
The contest turned on its head at this point. Leading 11-8, 11-8, 10-7 disaster struck. Salunkhe developed cramps in her leg, was in severe pain and her mobility was down to virtually nil. “It was like a huge stone had been tied to her legs. She could not lift her legs, let alone move,” said Poncha. Her New Zealand opponent seized the moment and saved three match points to win the game.
The little rest after that game and some ice-pack massaging brought some relief to Salunkhe, who was sadly resigned to the fact that she was fighting a lost cause, having to deal with a new experience.
Poncha, her coach, put it down to chance.
Against Hong Kong next for the 7-8 placings, Salunkhe was a spectator and her replacement Nikita Joshi put up an inspired show, winning her match. Teammates Advani and Jawanda, however, could not, leaving India to settle for eighth place.
But as Coach Poncha put it, India went down fighting and what was inspiring was “..we have now two players, Nikita and Akanksha, who will be there for the next edition and surely a better result can be expected. There are players coming up and competitions should make India stronger in the days to come.”
Maj S. Maniam, the Consultant Coach of SRFI said, “the level of our players matched players of that age of other playing nations. What is required now is for them to focus on their stroke-selection and consistency. Players should strengthen their self-belief and raise fitness levels and surely India can foresee some happier times ahead.”
For a country that has been successfully making inroads at the international level, the Eindhoven competition is just one more occasion to not only showcase the fresh talents but plan resolutely for the future.