Back in August 2011, the name Joshana Chinappa was thought to be long-lost in the abyss of medical turmoil. Torn ligaments in her right knee had been her downfall. Physically she was shattered, mentally she was terrified. “She didn’t know if she wanted to come back. She was scared to run, she was scared to play,” recalls national coach Cyrus Poncha. Yet within that fear she found what had epitomised her playing career till that point – a steely resolve. Almost like a phoenix rising out of the ashes, Chinappa rose from an operation theatre to the confined walls of a squash court.
Only unlike the mythical bird, she didn’t restart as fresher. She was the then 10-time national champion and the only Indian to have won the U-17 and U-19 British Open titles. Armed with a surgically repaired knee, seven months later, the name reappeared on the roster of the professional circuit.
Chinappa’s resurgence speaks of one of the grittiest tales of revival in the sport’s history. Lost in the stagnancy of the mid-20 world ranks before the injury, the 29-year-old reached her career high last month – 17 – only for her to jump up four more places to 13 on the December 1 charts, where she now leapfrogs Dipika Pallikal to yet again become the country’s top player. This is the first time since August 2010 that she’s overtaken compatriot Dipika Pallikal in the world rankings.
And the feat itself was marked by her becoming the first ever Indian to beat a world number one, when she ousted Raneem El Weleily at the recent Qatar Classic. Again it was the steely resolve that came to the fore in her opening round match against the top seeded Egyptian. “I was just keeping it simple and sticking to the basics. I just wanted to focus on playing well and stick to my plan,” she says.
Since her recovery, Chinappa has brought in a more patient element into her game. “She has always possessed a lot of skill, but she’s been erratic at times in the past. But now she’s structuring her points a lot better,” says Saurav Ghosal, 10-time national champion in the men’s category and Chinappa’s long-time friend.
Poncha too credits the mature authority his former ward has brought into her style as a key aspect behind her rise. “She used to go for a lot of shots earlier and that led her to making plenty of unforced errors. But now she doesn’t mind playing a longer game just so that she can get the correct attacking shots placed at the right time,” he explains. “But for that, she needs to be very fit and that’s something she’s done very well,” he adds.
Shortly before Chinappa travelled with the Indian team for the successful Commonwealth Games campaign in Glasgow last year, her former mentor Ritwik Bhattacharya had said that the injury scare had shaken the Indian squash ace to the extent that she continues to works extra hard on her fitness. Ghosal too recognised the positive fitness-oriented trend in his team-mate during her rehabilitation phase. “She focused on her rehab work and made sure she got strong before getting back to playing. She used the time off-court to build herself physically, which was the perfect thing to do,” Ghosal states.
The increased level of training in turn led her to become confident with how her body holds up in the physically grueling sport. “She tells me that if you line up most of the women athletes against her in a 100 metre race, she’ll win it before most can cross halfway,” explains Chinappa’s father, Anjan Chinappa.
Though the career-threatening injury did steal a year’s worth of competitive squash from her career, her father likens the period to a ‘Himalayan penance’ for his daughter. He recalls his daughter not being as serious about the sport as she should have been – a mindset which kept her hovering among the mid-20 ranked squash players in the world. “The injury was a catalyst. All of a sudden she realized what she wasn’t doing. She became 100 times more focused, physically more prepared and just a much stronger player. And now she’s broken in the top 20’s for the second time,” he asserts.
Ghosal in turn simply states that Chinappa realised her quality on the squash court during the injury. “I feel she appreciates her talent a lot more. She realised what she has is special and appreciates it more,” he says. Since her return, Chinappa rose from world No. 71 she had dropped to and silently stormed back to her best. Yet just as it was before, she’s all about enjoying the game and shuns away any thought about the ‘number’ professional players get associated with. “I’m enjoying my squash more and I am a lot more relaxed, which is probably showing in my game. I am not really worried about peaking, or rankings,” she maintains.
Her father further explains Joshana’s mindset. “She says, ‘let the rankings trail me.’”
Given the new world ranking though, there is an air of caution that has been addressed in her direction. Previously, Chinappa has been guilty of over-burdening her schedule with tournaments she could have done without. “She’d play any and all tournaments,” laments Poncha. Now however, she has the liberty of choosing to play at an event which will render her an entry directly to the main draw. “Qualifying matches can be hard too. So I’m glad I don’t have to go through them now,” she says.
Main draw entries further qualifies the essence of her achievements. Since the comeback she’s taken her domestic tally to 14 national championships. Yet more importantly is the stir she has infused among the top players in the world. Father Anjan has already advised caution to the mighty Egyptians. “Joshana’s already knocked down their icon at the top!” he exclaims.
Lost in the wilderness just a few years ago, the question was will she ever play again. The question now has a different ring to it: how much higher can she go? Poncha, who recalls her being the only 12-year-old he’d ever seen to choose squash as a career at that age, asserts that Chinappa’s is on the verge of peaking. There’s nothing unlucky about 13 in this tale of a career revival.