The four courts present a busy picture. Players, men, women and juniors are hitting it out. The sound of the strokes reverberates in the Indian Squash Academy facility. Off the court the one man who is all focussed and constantly moving from one area to another is the Egyptian coach Achraf el Karargui, keen as ever that he was not missing anything amiss in the way the play was on.
With one word here or a gesture there, he ensures his instructions are soaked in by the on-court rivals. This is the ambience of the national camp as the women are bracing up with junior boys as sparring partners for the big challenge of the World team championship later this month in Paris.
For the record India will be represented by the veterans Joshna Chinappa, Dipika Pallikal and the new blood Sunayna Kuruvilla and Akanksha Salunkhe. In a way it is a blend of experience with raw talent and perhaps a symbolism of the transition that awaits the distaff side of squash in India.
As is only to be expected, much will have to depend on the good touch of the two well-entrenched professionals Joshna and Dipika for India to get that initial push off the blocks and more. Then there is the question of how quickly the two young champions adapt and get into the groove in what will be a test by fire.
There are thus many imponderables but such is the strength of belief in Indian squash now, thanks to the depth of talent in this ever growing sport, that the confidence is high.
National coach Cyrus Poncha, who will be travelling with the team, strongly believes that “we should do better than the 14th place finish last time.” He held hopes of the two seniors giving a good start and inspiring the other two youngsters. “Getting into the top eight will be our first goal,” he said and this if they achieve, according to him, would be something exceptional.
It is a pressure situation but it is interesting to delve into the minds of experienced players like Dipika for instance. She was not part of the Indian squad in 2014 but that does not take away anything from this top draw player who has seen it all and been regularly soaking in such tight settings in the PSA circuit.
“Ya, I have been in the pro circuit since the age 16 or 17 and known enough now to handle all kind of situations on court. I feel at the top there is little to choose between players. It is all in the mind and the day's initiative. The one who makes the early move often earns the best,” said Dipika of life in the tough world of the professional circuit.
Lately she has been down a little and this she attributes to her low-key approach. But she has better plans ahead and is confident from the New Year on things would change and she would regain the lost ground.
On what was her most memorable show till date, Dipika was quick to pick the 2014 Commonwealth Games gold which she and Joshna won in the doubles, as the best ever. “We had come from nowhere to win the gold medal. Nobody really saw us as serious challengers. That made it something special,” she said on how from then perspectives changed in foreign players on the Indian stock in squash.
To that extent, the teams in France too for the World championship would view India with additional interest. Dipika knows that and this is reflected in the way she sweats it out in the camp, playing top junior boys. What stands out about this versatile player is her consistency in the strokes, the unerring efforts to find the area just above the tin. Often they turn unreturnable and young Vishal Mehra who played her would vouch for that!
But the boys give no respite. Ask Sunayna. The newly crowned national junior champion realised it was futile to challenge a boy on court movement. “They keep running and taking returns. So difficult,” she went on after an energy-sapping session that had the nod of approval from Achraf.
The Egyptian's prescription for competitions at this level is clear : mental toughness. “All these players are highly skilled and fit but mental toughness is the need for top-end matches. The situation is more like football. You train well,are fit and are confident of the challenge ahead but if you tell the boys, you are playing Brazil, the colour goes away in their faces,” he said, in a way revealing why current big force Egyptian players often dominate in the international arena in squash.
It is Achraf's view that regular exposure to tough competitions can go a long way in preparing a tough mind and ensuring all round success. For the moment anyway there is no let up in the steam at the ISA facility. It is an earnest preparation for a tough challenge.