Says Dipika Pallikal who left home at 14 to train in Egypt
It can take a lifetime to find your true calling. To achieve that and act proactively on a goal at 14 is astounding. Barely in her teens, Dipika Pallikal decided to head to Egypt, leaving the comforts of home to pursue a career in squash. It could not have been be easy to give up the comforting presence of family and friends, but Dipika was convinced squash was her life.
“I really wanted to play squash. I did not think about the consequences of leaving home at an early age,” says Dipika, who was in Bangalore while on a tour across schools in India with ITC Classmate.
Now 20, the gamble has paid off. Dipika is the world no. 15 (a small drop from her career high of 14), the first time an Indian has entered the top 20. With many more quality years to come, further advances in the rankings seem likely.
Most parents would dismiss a 14-year-old’s desire to up and leave for an unfamiliar location, but Dipika’s vision was shared by her family. “It did scare them a bit, that I was going to move so far away. But they trusted me, and knew I had to do this to become successful,” she says.
What motivates a teen to train hard in a foreign country, in a life that seems far from normal? “I would say I was a weird teenager, just seriously focussed. I truly wanted to prove to my parents and others that even though I was living alone, I could make it. The drive was strong, the need to prove to people I could be No. 1.”
A drastic life decision must be reinforced with early success to validate the sacrifices made. It was also necessary to continue to gain the confidence which translates into improving shows on the court.
A slew of junior international titles like the French Open, Australian Open, Asian Championship and the prestigious British Open did just that. At 17, Dipika was the world no.1 junior. However, collecting trophies meant having little energy for regular chores.
Dipika had help at the Cairo hotel she called home, a driver who came in handy to take her to training and back. “We also hired housekeeping to do the dishes and wash clothes.” Egypt national coach Amir Wagih played a vital role in keeping Dipika comfortable, reaching beyond the four walls of the court. “Amir Wagih was so supportive. I was like a daughter to him."
Time off from squash was spent in malls, weekends with friends, bringing a semblance of teenage life back in the picture. “The only thing we could do there was visit malls. I did see the pyramids, but you can only do that once. It was like a closed camp, and all I wanted to do was play squash.”
She had to take precautions for safety, similar to guidelines a tourist would follow. “People were nice, but you cannot do certain things. For example, a single girl cannot take a taxi, cannot walk alone. The supermarket to buy groceries was opposite my hotel. It would take a minute to cross the road and reach there, but it wasn’t safe. So I’d take the car with the driver to get to the store, which would then take 10 minutes.”
Visits to India would consist of making up for school days she missed, a regimen insisted upon by Dipika’s mother. “My mother ensured that I went to school when I was in Chennai to get a sense of discipline. She felt it was very important to lead the life of a normal teenager.”
Dipika attended Good Shepard Convent before moving to Lady Andal, and both schools were quite accommodating of the visiting athlete, allowing her to take important exams after skipping a fair amount of regular classes.
A year in England followed her four-year stint in Egypt, and the senior national champion now resides in Australia with new coach and five-time World Open winner Sarah Fitzgerald. A breakthrough 2011 saw her winning three WISPA (senior women’s squash tour) events, signalling that it is now time for Dipika to collect the rewards that are her due.