World Jr Women’s Team Championships 2003, Cairo

Maj. S. Maniam, Supriya Balsekar, Alisha Mashruwala, Cyrus Poncha, Joshna Chinappa, Vaidehi ReddySquash coaching under way at the SDAT (From left) Maj. S. Maniam, Supriya Balsekar, Alisha Mashruwala, me, Joshna Chinappa and Vaidehi Reddy in preparation for the Jr Women World Championships held at Cairo.

We reached the semi finals our best showing till datedate

With sweat dripping all over, Vaidehi Reddy steps out of the court to catch a breath of fresh air. She is not finished yet nor is she yearning for rest. Joshna Chinappa is getting ready for her turn. Alisha Mashruwala is warming up in another court, while Supriya Balsekar is stretching out after her rigours. With national coach Cyrus Poncha constantly monitoring their work, the seriousness of the whole exercise is complete. This is the scene at the SDAT-TNSRA courts where the four girls, each a champion player and together forming the cream of Indian talent, are going through their paces for the toughest test of all — the Junior World Championship to get under way in Cairo in a few days’ time.

“We are into the final phase of the structural training programme that started in January. The stress has been on enhancing the fundamentals, choice of strokes, tactics, strategy and stringent fitness requirement,” explains retired Maj S. Maniam, the man who took Malaysian squash to its pinnacle when he was the Director of Coaching. Currently, he is the Squash Rackets Association of India’s Consultant Coach.

“This is the final phase when the players suddenly find a load off their back. This is the phase for practice and play matches; we believe by the time the Championship takes place, they would perform to their best,” says Maj Maniam. Variety has been one of the key ingredients in his programme but few, including the players, would have realised that this would involve an element of surprise as well. The surprise at the courts was the presence of Malaysia’s number one player and ranked under 20 in the world, Sharon Wee. “We have brought her here on a two-week stay to spar with our players,” says N. Ramachandran, Secretary-General, SRFI. At this stage, when an actual match situation is needed, the move to invite Sharon is considered a boon, as “this helps the girls experience the kind of intense challenge they could expect in Cairo,” says Maj Maniam.

The Malaysian player is very eager to help. “These girls are playing so well. If they perform fine, I will consider Asia is doing well,” says Sharon without concealing her admiration of India’s current status as Asia’s number one team. “We were on top but have now gone down after the exit of players such as Nicol David and Tricia Chuah but the gap is being narrowed,” she says of Malaysia’s current level in Asia. Talk of Malaysia’s slip after being almost there in the summit at the last Junior World Championship held in Penang two years ago and Maj Maniam becomes quiet. “For a long time since Tricia slipped from a match point situation, I was unable to get over the disappointment,” the celebrated coach recalls. Of course, the expectations with this Indian squad are not realistically as high. But there is pressure to keep the Asian flag flying high after that scintillating show in Islamabad in the last Asian Championship when the girls won the team title and Joshna Chinappa went on to become Asian champion.

“Last time at Penang, India finished eighth overall in the team event. I will be satisfied if they better that. The girls are playing well. This is the minimum goal,” says Maj Maniam preferring to be guarded in his assessment. But what has put him off is the poor draw Joshna faces in the individual event. Considering her achievements, not the least her status as Asia’s number one junior, Joshna is placed in the five to eight seeding bracket but she finds herself in the upper half of the draw which means, if everything goes well, she meets the top seed Egyptian and hot favourite Omneya Abdel Kawy in the quarterfinal. “Kawy was runner up to Nicol last time and at present streets ahead of the rest. It is difficult to imagine anyone stopping Kawy,” feels Maj Maniam.

But the national champion Joshna is unfazed. Grit is her other name and add to it maturity and equipoise, that is Joshna for you now. “Yes, she has beaten me easily when we met last. But it is a game and as I see it, I need to give of my best,” she says unmindful of the challenge but happy with the kind of training she has undergone. Echoing the sentiments was Vaidehi Reddy, last time’s best performer for India by reaching the last sixteen. “Kawy is an amazing player, who can be so deceptive,” says Vaidehi of the Egyptian. Having played in two earlier World Championships, Vaidehi, who is soon to shift to the U.S. to pursue her undergraduate studies in the Trinity College, Connecticut, does not make much of the pressures of playing in a world arena. “We will do our best,” is her assurance and indeed like her colleagues, has sacrificed much for the big event. Along with them three Chennai girls will be accompanying — Shibani Philip, Sonali Philip and Deepika Pallikkal — to play in the individual events. In addition, Poncha will be attending a World Squash Federation’s Coaches Conference, a first for an Indian. All in all, there is much to look forward to for the Indians in Cairo. “Even one step higher than the eighth place” will be a wonderful achievement for the girls.

About Cyrus Poncha
I was born and lived in Bombay before moving to Chennai in 2001 to coach the Indian national squash team....what a journey its been!!

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