Joshna Chinappa, at 33, is the oldest woman in the top 12 of the current Professional Squash Association rankings. The world No 12 is followed by 13th ranked Englishwoman Alison Waters, who is 35.
But age is just a number for the top-ranked Indian female squash player who is in the best shape of her career, thanks to a new regime in the last couple of years with fitness trainer Beth Bond. She has been consistently ranked in the world’s top-15 in the last five years and aims to break back in the Top-10 soon.
“I work with a really good fitness trainer from the UK,” Joshna told Scroll.in. “She’s been involved in my training for the last one and a half years and I feel like she’s made a huge difference. Physically, I feel like I am in the best shape ever. There are things I’m doing in my 30s that I never dreamed of doing in my 20s.”
The 33-year-old added: “I truly think it’s all about putting in that work, training correctly, working with someone that truly understands what it is that you need. Her program has really complimented my on-court matches and my training. I really don’t think age is a number when it comes to training. Like I said, like I feel better than I ever had in my early 20s.”
This year, Joshna won a record 17th national title as well as defended her Asian Individual Squash Championships in Kuala Lumpur. Now, she is gearing up for the World Championship, the biggest tournament in women’s squash beginning on October 24 in Egypt.
The preparation for it started even before the season began with coach Hadrian Stiff, who has coached former world No 2 Mohamed El Shorbagy and Joelle King among other big names, in Bristol in England.
“The training really started in the summer, because you get only a week between each tournament. I was training in the UK and have been in Chennai for only last one week. It’s just been a lot of match play and a lot of games. I’m really looking forward to playing at the World Championship, and it’s going to be really good. It’s a tough draw but, you know, I’m looking forward to that,” she said.
Joshna, seeded 12th, will start her campaign against USA’s Haley Mendez, who is ranked 42nd in the world. But the Indian doesn’t anticipate any easy rounds in Cairo.
“I think anyone outside the top 20, even from the World No 1 to 40-50, are all really strong competitors. The girl I’m playing is a very solid player too. You really are tested from round one these days. If you notice, the draw in squash is fairly smaller than other games. So you’re playing some of the best players in the world from round one onwards. For me, I take it one match at a time and hopefully I can take it as forward as again,” she explained.
The World Championships are in Egypt, which is currently the top country in squash. The three top-ranked male and female players are all from Egypt and the nation consistently produces squash champions.
“Egypt is a small country so they only have a few sports that they really focus on… In a in a city like Cairo, there’s more than like 15-20 clubs that have 10 to 15 squash courts,” Joshna said.
“The parents encourage their kids into squash because having a club there is part of their lifestyle. Also, they have a lot of players that who have done so well before that they all look up to. They have very good coaches as well so they are very knowledgeable about the game and hence the kids get that kind of access to information and training from the time they’re really young. That’s why they become so good very quickly.”
In India, many of the top players train individually across the world but Joshna feels that the national federation is doing its bit to help players cut down on travel cost and get the requisite facilities at home. She added that they are trying to look for a full-time coaching option as well, after some issues over an event-based foreign coach.
“The sport has grown a lot within the country, we’re having like a whole bunch of professional tournaments in India. That’s so good for our players because it’s expensive to keep going abroad. This encourages the upcoming players, gives them this opportunity to play and get points within India because if they go abroad, they will struggle to get into draws. So, the fact that the Federation and government is encouraging the game to grow is really good to see,” she added.
She also feels that squash is no longer an elite sport anymore in India with so many public academies all over the country and the system is only going to get better.
“The junior nationals going on in Chennai and there’s just so many players here and they’re all so excited to be here and compete. This kind of buzz has only been there in recent times because the sport has grown,” she added.
For the 33-year-old, the signs of change means her competition at the national level is only getting tougher. In June, the veteran broke 16-time national champion Bhuvneshwari Kumari’s record for most titles which had stood for 27 years. To some, this may look like a sign of there being no younger player at the same level, but Joshna disagrees.
“I’d like to think that I have to work really hard to be where I am. The thing is that the girls have also gotten a lot better over the last couple of years. Like Tanvi [Khanna] and Sunayna [Kuruvilla], they all work really hard, they are playing on the professional tour and have had some good results. Today, even from round one at the Nationals, I don’t take anyone for granted, and definitely in the later stages, I have to bring my A game all the time because they also come in with the mindset of pushing the envelope as much as they can,” Joshna said.
Sunayna, the runner-up at the nationals, will be the other Indian at the World Championship.
While a medal at the marquee event may be a tough ask, Joshna hopes to make a deep run and eventually go past her career-best ranking of world No 10. But she knows it won’t be easy and the two semi-final exits this year clearly fresh in her mind.
“In the near future, I would like to break back into the top and I want to make a mark more in the World Series events that I’m playing. I really want to push past the top eight, when I am playing in the third round and quarter-finals at the big tournaments. Just winning those matches makes a big difference,” she said.
“My long term goal is to compete at the Commonwealth and Asian Games, hopefully my body will be still going on, in the next few years as well.”
Given squash is not an Olympic sport, the multi-nation tournaments are big for her, and after medals at both events in 2018, she has her sights set on the next event.