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Cover Story
August 17, 2015

Dipika Pallikal Raises A Racquet

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Jewellery by Jaipur Gems. Photographed by Ishaan Nair. Styling by Chandni Bahri. Make-Up And Hair by Rosario Belmonte, Anima Creative Management. Location Courtesy: Roche Bobois, Mumbai

Braving loneliness, new cultures and rigorous schedules, 23-year-old Dipika Pallikal has lived in different continents to pursue her passion for her sport. Undeterred by harsh losses and unexpected challenges, India’s top female squash player has successfully brought the individual sport into the limelight. Verve spends time with the sports star who, looking forward to her marriage with cricketer Dinesh Karthik, is gunning for the top spot in her game

Her involvement with the sport — which began when she was a child — has been largely instrumental in the fact that Pallikal has an old head on her young shoulders. Interestingly, as she narrates, though she grew up in a sports-loving family (her mother Susan was the captain of the Indian women’s cricket team and her father Sanjiv played college-level cricket), her tryst with squash came about purely by chance. “My two elder sisters played sports in school and I was a part of the tennis academy. I played tennis for two years but I did not enjoy it because one had to queue up to get a chance to hit the ball. Then, one Saturday morning, my best friend was going for a summer camp and I accompanied her as I did not want to get bored at home. To be honest, at that time, I did not know what squash was.

For me the most important thing was to be with my best friend. I remember the first time I got into the playing area and saw all the little girls stretching and warming up. Squash came easily to me as it was a racquet sport. I quickly caught on and enjoyed being a part of a coed academy where all the juniors played.”

On her days at school, she states, “My sisters were loved by all the teachers — they were captains in every class possible. I was the exact opposite. Though I did well, I was very naughty. I loved going to school because I enjoyed spending time with all the other girls; I also enjoyed the PT classes at the end of the day. Today, I realise that I have grown up much faster than my peers, largely because when I was around 15 I was already leading the life of a 25-28-year-old. I was living on my own, often out of a suitcase as I travelled around the world. I had started earning when I was 16; so it obviously made me aware of society, the world and it made me a stronger and a very different person.”

Choosing a sport as a way of life changed her schedules drastically. Though initially she played only on weekends, when she started training every day, Pallikal had to make a radical mindset change. She admits, “I would wake up at 5 am and by 6 am I used to be at the squash courts. I would always be late for school because I would want to train a half hour extra at the academy. The schedule was tough, even more so because we were three girls at home. Since I am the youngest, my mother would come in the morning with me to the academy, watch me train and then drop me to school. It was very important that my elder sisters did not feel neglected; and I think my parents did a great job with that.”

What was tougher was her sojourn in Egypt — when she was around 13, she moved base for four years. This took her away from her family and plunged her into a new environment — and she came home only for some training or studies. She admits, “My parents told me that if I wanted to play sports, I should do it properly, but they emphasised that education was also important. I would return home to give examinations, and while here, I would continue training. It was very tough there. My mom did visit occasionally, but otherwise I had to do everything myself — cook, clean and train. It was a bit scary. At that time, there was no Facebook, WhatsApp or Skype, so staying in touch was difficult. I have a supportive family and good friends who got me through it all. My grandparents also played a big part in my life. In fact, there are many things that I share with them and not with my own parents. They are always just a phone call away.”

What held her in good stead when she felt that things were getting too tough was the realisation that she was not just playing for herself but also giving squash in India a much-needed boost. Pallikal mentions, “It was always in my head that this was what I was doing for squash and that if I wanted to get anywhere near being the best, this is what I had to do. There were  times when I told my mother that I wanted to come back. But she guided me in the right direction. My mom still does play a big role in my career, as she does my reservations and picks the tournaments I should play in — I still don’t have the knack of selecting the right tournaments, though I have learned to take many decisions by myself and find my way out of difficult situations. My parents gave me the freedom to learn and grow.”

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