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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

Although ranks fluctuate with wins and losses, the girl who returned to the World No. 10 slot last year (she had first grabbed this slot in December 2012) is looking forward to attain the top spot in the game. Pallikal admits, “Two years ago if you had asked me what my goal was, I would have said I want to be up there with the best, be known with the people who are really, really famous on the circuit. But, now for me the most important thing is the fact that I want to enjoy the process of getting there. When I became World No. 10, everything happened really quickly — I didn’t know how to handle it, and I didn’t know how to be consistent. But I think I’ve gotten used to the fact that you win some and you lose some. When I was a junior, I hated losing. A loss would bring me down for a couple of weeks. But, on the circuit, you have to bounce back. Every week you are playing — one week, you may have a great performance and the next, you might have a terrible loss. My rank has slipped, but I know that I have the ability to get back into the Top 10 again. But I know that it will not happen overnight.”

The self-confessed fitness freak, who says she enjoys being in a gym, follows a strict regimen. Training since she was about 12 with Shankar Basu, she laughingly says, “Earlier I was a sweets junkie — when I got home, I had to have something sweet. I would eat chocolates or some ice cream almost every day. Over the years, I realised what the right choices were for me.”

The first Indian female squash player to be awarded a Padma Shri is setting standards, not just in her sport, but as a successful girl in any individual sport. Aware of the sense of responsibility her role brings with it, Pallikal says, “There is pressure to be at the top of the game. But, it is more a feeling of motivation. I know that the more stuff I do, more juniors will take up squash. I am very proud and humbled that several girls have taken to the game because of me. When young girls come and tell me that they want to be exactly like me, I take it as a personal motivation to do better.”

She does not deny the presence of stress in her life not just in the squash court but off it too — she remembers something that happened in her earlier years. At one point, she was barred from playing at the Indian Squash Academy for a short while. She recalls, “I was the most stressed when I was around 13 — butI probably did not even know what stress was. I didn’t have a place to practice in the country; there was a time I was banned from the academy. I was India No. 1 in juniors and I didn’t know what was going on in my life. I had only seen myself playing squash in the future — suddenly it seemed as if it would all be taken away from me. I didn’t know what was going on in my life. It was really scary. I sat in my room for two to three weeks and cried. I had always been protected by my family and I suddenly realised that there were bad people in the world. So, once I went to Egypt, I was driven to prove them wrong. And, I still play with a little bit of anger in me.”

The ‘first lady of squash’ in India realised that this was her true calling when she won her first tournament. “I was about 11 then,” Pallikal says. “I didn’t know how the scoring system worked. I did not even know where to serve from. But, I won — and loved the feeling of winning. And I realised that that’s what I wanted to do!”

It is no wonder then that she does not regret the long hours spent in achieving her goal. But, when she started off, she did have moments when she longed to be a regular girl. “When I was 16 or 17, I remember throwing a tantrum and telling my mother that I was doing everything that was required to be a good squash player. I asked her why she could not let me go out one night for a party. She quietly told me that if I went out, I would return only by 3 am and would have to go for squash practice at 6 am. So, the night out did not make sense. Then I got used to the fact that I do not live a normal life. I’m a very abnormal person, with a very abnormal career and a very abnormal life.”

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