The Asian Games has often been a stage where stars are born. Scroll looks at a number of athletes from the Indian contingent who have largely flown under the radar, but may shoot into the limelight in Hangzhou.
Anahat Singh smiled, disbelievingly, before walking up to her opponent. She stuck out her arm for the customary post-match handshake, but Jada Ross, from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, moved in closer and gave Singh a hug.
At 14, Singh was not accustomed to playing competitive matches on the senior squash circuit. But in that warm embrace, after she won her first match at the Commonwealth Games in 2022, she had received her first big welcome to the big leagues.
“I was so happy that she gave me a hug,” Singh told Scroll, laughing as she recalled. “I told all my school friends and squash friends about it. I was just so excited.”
In her first ever appearance at a multi-sports event, Singh had been made to play on the main show court. But she seized the opportunity, winning 11-5, 11-2, 11-0. In the second round she would lose to seventh seed Emily Whitlock 7-11, 7-11, 11-4, 6-11. But by then she had already made an impression on the squash circuit.
Now, the 15-year-old from New Delhi is set to compete at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.
At the Singh household, father Gursharan and mother Tani have made it a point to ensure no achievement of their younger daughter gets praised for too long. It doesn’t matter if it was the Under-11 British Open she won in 2019 (she won the Under-15 event earlier this year), the Under-17 Asian Junior Squash Individual Championships title she clinched just last month, or her stirring performance at the Commonwealth Games.
“She’s playing, enjoying, going from one tournament to the other, as a family, we don’t make a big deal out of it,” said Tani to this publication over the phone. “We try to keep it subdued because she has a long way to go. It’s something we do on purpose. In school also, we ask them not to make a big deal out of it. On the circuit too she gets a lot of attention, but we want her to have some kind of normalcy at home.”
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But Singh was not the same person she was when she left for Birmingham. Competing at the Commonwealth Games, this early in her career, gave her a look into what the circuit was about. She had been used to playing in junior events, and had just started to play a few senior tournaments. But competing in Birmingham was her first big move into professional tour.
“That was one of the main transition phases that I experienced,” Singh said. “I properly understood what it’s like to play at the senior level. I won only one match, but I got a chance to see what it’s like to play internationally, what I have to change going further, what I have to maintain going further.”
In that fortnight in Birmingham, she had changed.
“Before the Games, she would always sleep in our room when we were travelling,” Tani explained. “We’d tell her to go sleep in her room but she never did. The first night [in Birmingham] she got a little scared because they all got single rooms. But after that, there was no going back. Now if I ask her to sleep in the same room as us, that’s not happening. She grew up.”
Singh may have started to become more independent and aware of what all goes into the making of a successful squash player. But, through her own admission, she has merely started to scratch the surface.
On her checklist, still pending is a medal at the Junior World Championships medal – she reached the quarter-finals twice.
Destined for sports
Tani asserted that Singh has been talking about becoming world champion ever since she started talking.
“Of course, she didn’t know what sport, she just wanted to be a world champion,” Tani said. “We encouraged her to get into sports as long as she was having fun, as long as it was not a forced thing.”
The family had watched 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, and have frequented the India Open badminton event – one of Singh’s prized possessions is an autograph of former Olympic and world champion Carolina Marin, complete with a heart on it.
Badminton, in fact, was Singh’s first great sporting sojourn. She had started playing the sport when she was six, and even won a few local tournaments. But since her elder sister Amira played squash, Singh picked up the sport as well.
It was only when she was 10 though that Singh decided to take up squash full-time.
“I could see the difference in how I was playing both sports – the way I was doing in badminton wasn’t as good as what I was doing in squash,” Singh said. “I was not necessarily a bad player, but maybe there were too many good players in badminton.”
The technique that she learnt while training for badminton, despite being a different sport, did give her a head start when it came to squash. The hand-eye coordination was already there, but she had the tendency of hitting the ball on the volley – which is considered an advanced technique in squash but is the essence of badminton.
What hitting on the volley meant was that Singh was playing the ball early, taking away time from the opponent.
What she needed to work on though was what has now become her most impactful stroke – the backhand. At the Commonwealth Games, the commentators would often praise her deception, accuracy and unforgiving backhand.
“Normally every player’s forehand tends to be stronger and that was the same with me,” she said. “My backhand was weaker in the earlier stages, I put in so much work to improve that it just became so much better than my forehand. Sometimes that confuses opponents. Players tend to automatically make plans to attack the backhand side, but for me that’s better because I can [counter-attack] much better.”
The development continued even when the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
Tani explained how her husband decided, a week before lockdown was announced, to clear out the furniture from the drawing room in their home. It was done to provide his daughters a wall to continue their practice on.
Amira, a top Under-19 player in the country at the time, could only do so much to continue her development. Eventually, she would need a sparring partner of equal quality, which was not possible. Instead, she decided to focus her attention on helping her younger sister.
“With the age difference, Amira was stronger and better,” Tani said. “Anahat gained a lot from those practice sessions because my elder daughter would keep pushing her. They would train together, they would do their drills together.
“For nine odd months when the squash courts were closed, they at least had one wall at home to train on. Of course, the wall was properly broken and had to be redone.”
What those training sessions did though, was allow Singh to get back onto squash courts as a much better player than what she was before the pandemic.
“It didn’t take much time to get used to it,” Tani said of Singh’s return to squash courts once lockdown regulations were lifted. “Anahat had in fact improved. She didn’t realise it because she was playing against her sister, but she had gotten used to harder hitting.”
The first tournament Singh played was a senior event. She was 12 at the time but reached the quarter-final. She continued to play senior level events because junior tournaments were not being held. Yet she managed to win two events and was invited to attend the trials for the Commonwealth Games team.
It was during those trials that Singh remembered having a conversation with India’s top players Saurav Ghosal and Joshna Chinappa.
“They came to me and spoke to me and said things like, if I don’t get selected for this tournament, I should not let that bother me,” Singh recalled. “[They said not to get] distracted because I have a bright future ahead of me. It was a lot of stuff about what all I need to improve on.”
As it panned out, Singh did well at the trials – much to the surprise of her own family – and was added to the team that would travel to Birmingham.
Singh laughed at the memory of her seniors passing down words of consolation, assuming she would not make the squad due to her age.
Now, once again for a major multi-sports event, Singh will be teaming up with those same seniors. As equals. Another big step towards the big leagues.