Seventeen and Counting
On a bright June Sunday afternoon, Joshna Chinappa won her record 17th Senior National Championship Squash title in Pune. The murky weather of previous weeks had stepped aside for a cheerful afternoon so that squash enthusiasts gathered around could witness a rare achievement. Seventeen is just a number but the sweat behind it had to be celebrated. Joshna had matched the record of another Indian squash legend – Bhuvneshwari Kumariʼs 16 national titles in 2018. Given the competitor that Joshna is, she was delighted to move past and make the record her own. The enormity of this achievement dawns once you go through her almost spotless record in the Indian Senior Nationals Championship tournament.
Joshna was barely even a teen when she played her first Senior Nationals at the tender age of 12, competing with several squash veterans. The fact that she reached the semi-finals in her very first venture speaks of her prodigal talent. It was not until the year 2000, when she was only 14 years old, that she got her hands on the Senior Nationals Trophy defeating her state-mate Vaidehi Reddy in a clinical performance. On her way to the finals, she also had to quell the challenge of then three-time defending champion – Mekhala Subedar in the semi-finals after trailing 2-1 down in the match. And for a fourteen year old girl to front-up to such a challenge and come out as a winner is incredible. The challenges offered, the title being her first one and also the fact that it was in front of her home crowd must have made it very special. In one of her references, Joshna indicates that one of her goals was to win the Senior Nationals before the age of sixteen. Clearly, it was done with time to spare. Joshna then went on to defend her title the following year as well as making it to a third consecutive final in 2002 by the age of sixteen.
Once the excitement of a trophy win wears out, what really makes a champion is the will to want to come and win again and again. Impressively being able to do it for two decades – Joshna had missed only two of the Senior Nationals in the 21 years since she played her first in 1998 in Calcutta Rackets Club, Kolkata. And of the 19 tournaments she has played, she reached the finals in every one of them losing just two of those finals — to Mekhala Subedar and Dipika Pallikal Karthik respectively. Interestingly both her losses were 3 – 1 defeats in the Otters Club, Mumbai. Chennai where she trained during her early years is where she won most of her titles but her trophy wins are across the nation- Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata, Jaipur, Delhi, Greater Noida, Secunderabad and Pune, where the record breaking title came. To make sense of her commitment, this is what I could glean from her past press interviews. The significance and the reverence to the Senior National Championship imbibed in her childhood days by her father and the nostalgic memories it brings with it seems to be the driving force. To Joshna it is not something she thinks about twice. She will play the Senior Nationals as long as she is playing squash professionally.
This unbelievable record also got me thinking on what is the most number of victories for a single tournament in the open era. I couldn’t find a clear reference yet on who owns this record. So I researched the records of one of the elite athletes ever to play any sport – Heather McKay, the Australian Squash legend who only lost twice during her entire career spanning across 21 years. Heatherʼs record is sixteen consecutive British Open Championships (1962-1977) and she also had a streak of 14 consecutive Australian Amateur Championships (1960-1973). The intent here is not to compare Joshnaʼs record with Heatherʼs but highlight that winning an annual championship in any individual sport year after year is extremely hard. The record in another racket sport – Tennis, is 12 French Open Titles by Rafael Nadal. Moving on to a completely different genre in sport – Formula 1, the record is 8 French Grand Prix titles by Michael Schumacher. No matter the sport and the level of competition, winning the same tournament year in and year out requires extreme levels of skill and dedication. Hence, it is easy to see that Joshna is willing herself to add more to her Senior National titles and extend this unique record of hers in the years to come.
In a sport like Squash which is still struggling for mainstream recognition, Joshnaʼs feats will pave the way for future generations to reach greater heights. She is already an exemplary role model in terms of dedication and discipline. In everything she does, be it conducting a squash clinic, preparing for the Senior Nationals or the Squash World Championship, she gives everything she has towards the cause. One can sense she has more good things coming her way. Also in terms of what she would offer to Indian Squash as a role model and mentor, the future does look far brighter.
As the titles and trophies fill Joshna’s home cabinets and memories fade away, does each individual title still hold a place in this champions heart? Are they still lucid enough to evoke strong emotions and offer support during moments of necessity? Is it possible for her to pick one of these victories as the closest to her heart – The first ever title in Chennai? Or the last one in Pune when she broke the record? I am sure if she is partial to one of these titles, she is not going to divulge it to the world. In my mind knowing the champion Joshna is, the trophy that is yet to be held aloft and nothing but a figment of imagination as of now will be the best one yet.
WRITTEN BY : Jeganraj Jeyaprakasam
Contributory articles are written by various sports enthusiasts