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India at CWG 2022: Teen titan Anahat Singh breaks the mould for Games debut-Sports News , Firstpost

Squash sensation Anahat Singh (14) is all set to make her senior debut at the Commonwealth Games for India as the youngest member of the team.

Kolkata: Player-turn coach Ritwik Bhattacharya had no doubt in his mind when he urged 14-year-old Anahat Singh’s parents to enter the prodigious talent for the 2022 Commonwealth Games trials’ draws. Winning ten sub-junior international titles and being seeded World No. 1 among players up to four years elder than her at the upcoming World Junior Squash Championships in France, Anahat is a special talent that has the Indian squash fraternity excited about the future prospect.

Still, for a 14-year-old squash player to face some of the biggest names on the professional squash (PSA) tour for the first time and that too at a big-ticket event like the Commonwealth Games, had some skeptics worried.

Ritwik, a former World Championship silver medallist, wasn’t one of those and he could see that the teenager is already showing traits of a professional player and had to explain Anahat’s parents why she must jump the ranks.

“She is ready,” said the 42-year-old coach, who trains Anahat at his world-class residential academy START in Mumbai. “The way she moved her feet around the court and hit the ball with correct weight distribution, Anahat was playing at a much higher level than other U-15s. I knew that I was looking at the rarest of talents India has produced and so there’s no point playing her at a lower level.”

Ritwik was spot on with his call as Anahat defeated experienced Indian national players Urwashi Joshi and Aparajitha Balamurukan while losing a closely-fought match to World No. 121 Sunayna Kuruvilla at the trials. Her victories were enough for the Squash and Racket Federation of India (SRFI) to pick the athlete on merit for the Birmingham Games.

Badminton developing her squash game

Anahat’s quick-feet movement and ability to hit the rubber with such accuracy wasn’t a godsend but came after countless hours on the court; albeit in another racket sport in badminton. Born in Singh’s family of the Greater Kailash I, Anahat picked up her father’s knack for sports as he took her youngest daughter around nearby Thyagaraja Stadium since her childhood.

Gursharan Singh, a former state-level hockey player, was keen on her then 7-year-old girl taking up squash like her elder daughter Amira, who played the game since 11. He, however, was advised against introducing her the game too early and decided to opt for badminton instead.

“Sports was always in the family’s blood,” Gursharan told Firstpost from Birmingham. “We have been keen on sports since my great grandfather made it big as a polo player. The family tradition eventually rubbed on Anahat as well as she watched her elder sister Amira and me playing squash.

“I thought, with her being enthusiastic, it’s the right time to indulge her in squash as well. However, her hands were too small to hold the heavy squash racket at that time and my friends suggested it’s better to introduce her to badminton.”

Going through a rigorous and effective training regime under the coaches of the Thyagaraja stadium, Anahat started leaving her mark in the sub-junior category by finishing on the podiums of local events and also the sub-junior national tournament. Her strong game convinced the coaches that they are nurturing a future national champion.

“Her badminton was unpredictable and quick reflexes were always difficult on her opponent. I remember to this day when her badminton coach told me at the Thyagaraja stadium that they are looking at a future national champion,” recalled Gursharan, who is a lawyer by profession.

By this time, Gursharan was also harbouring the dream of watching her daughter represent India in two sports, believing she will do well in squash as well. His hunch was not unfounded as Anahat’s introduction to squash at the age of eight soon yielded results. In less than a year, she became India No.1 in the Under-11 category and held on to the spot for two years before switching to U-13 category.

The decision

Managing two sports together was becoming a challenge and Singh had to choose between squash and badminton as the dates of tournaments of the two sports often collided.

Anahat (second from right) with father Gursharan, mother Tani Vadhera Singh and elder sister Amira. Firstpost

“We had to choose one as playing tournaments of both the games was difficult to manage for her and us as well. What made it easier for us to choose squash was because it started from the U-11 category back then and for badminton nationals we had to wait till U-13,” said Gursharan.

It was all destiny for Anahat as she went on to win 42 national circuit titles and two sub-junior national squash titles. Her international triumphs included British Open silver medals (U-11 and U-13), European and Dutch Opens (U-13) titles before the pandemic set in.

Badminton, which was left behind, never left her, and inadvertently prepared her for squash. The difference was there for her elder sister Amira, also her long-time training partner, to see as well as the Harvard University student could sense her sibling’s big game.

“It was evident from the way she hit the ball and move quickly around the court, ” said Amira, who is five years elder than Anahat. “She was at a much higher level than I was at her age. Unlike a budding squash player, she won’t wait for the ball to come to her but try to hit it on the volley as much as she can to win the points. It’s something that came from badminton and stood her apart from the rest.”

Amira’s presence was not just important in Anahat picking up squash but it also kept her younger sibling in the game when the world came to a halt during the pandemic.

The implication of the COVID-19-forced lockdown on the current generation of squash players was inexplicable given it took away more than a year of training away from them. Squash resumption in the post-pandemic world was complicated given the game was played in a closed-space; barring the reopening of the squash courts throughout the nation.

Concerned about her growth, the Singh family made arrangements for a makeshift court at their home as Amira was tasked with training Anahat. In order to ensure she faces varied opponents during the period, local player and coach Dharmender Welwan also visited their residence regularly to train the kid.

Hate-to-lose attitude

Amid the unprecedented situation what remained constant was Anahat’s hunger to improve and compete.

“We were worried she might lose interest in the game if kept away for too long as a kid,” said mother, Tani Vadehra Singh. “So we did whatever we could to keep her close to the game. But she never lost her appetite.

“From the beginning, Anahat never liked losing. She would give her all to go get the ball, give her 200 percent to return the ball. My husband says it’s like a dog playing fetch, very determined.”

By 2021, it was getting hard to keep the athlete inside Anahat content at home as she was egging on to check where she stood after spending a year at home.

Her return to the junior circuit expectedly saw her triumph on the national stages before she grabbed US Open Junior Championships U-15 title.

The major sub-junior title made her the first Indian girl to achieve the feat at any level and fourth overall behind Shreyas Mehta (U-13 in 2016), Yash Fadte (U-17 in 2017), and Rohan Arya Gondi (U-13 in 2018).

Medal prospect at Commonwealth Games?

Anahat’s meteoric rise continued in 2022 as well with the U-15 title at the Asian Junior Championships in Pattaya. This was followed by German and Dutch Open titles soon after and it placed her as the No. 1 in Asia and Europe in the girl’s U-13 category and No. 4 in the U-15 category.

But will such performances render a medal at the Commonwealth Games? Is it too far-fetched to think she is a medal contender on her debut against PSA players that includes world beaters in New Zealand’s World No. 4 Joelle King and England’s World No. 5 Sarah-Jane Perry?

SRFI general secretary Cyrus Poncha urged caution on medal expectations saying Anahat is one for the future.

“We have certainly thrown her into the deep end but I think that’s the way for her to grow as well,” said Cyrus, who served as national coach and player in the past. “Yes, she made it on merit but we are not thinking of a medal now but for her to have that experience and exposure in the long run. Who knows, maybe at this time next year at the Asian Games we will talk of her medal chances but right now it’s about letting her see that level.”

Anahat, who will also be competing in women’s doubles with Sunayna in Birmingham, will have to leave for France immediately after the Games as top seed at the World Junior Championships from 9 August.

Coach Ritwik is excited about the prospect of millions of Indians watching the once-in-a-decade talent of the country surprise some big names of squash as he drew a parallel of Anahat with Pakistan squash great Jansher Khan, who won the World title record eight times.

“Anahat is going to be very difficult to beat at the CWG and World Juniors. She has no weaknesses! The beauty is there is no pressure on her and it’s completely on all the other players, ” said Ritwik. “She is an intuitive squash player and moulds her game to what is necessary. She plays and moves effortlessly like a young Jansher!”

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