SQUASH Dipika Pallikal talks about her performance on the squash court and life off it

Aphotoshoot is in full swing at a city hotel. The cameras are focussed on Dipika Pallikal, and both the photographers and the

subject are in the groove. A group of onlookers, however, cause a rather abrupt interruption. Having spotted the star athlete, they instruct the photographers to take a break. This group of middle-aged women would like to take a few photos of their own.

“We are in the middle of something important here. Please hold on for a few minutes,” says a calm Dipika. The photoshoot carries on, and when it ends, Dipika invites the women over. The head-tilt, smile and pose emerge for another round of pictures, and the ecstatic bunch immediately discuss the number of ‘likes’ that can be expected on their Facebook profiles.

The disruption, which provided all the reasons for everyone to throw an almighty fit, was handled without any fuss. The perfect excuse for an explosive ‘diva’ moment was lost. Does Dipika not feel a sense of entitlement, to get things done – even photoshoots - on her own terms? “No way! When I am at home in Chennai, I get whacked by my parents if I act like a star,” the squash player says, and quickly adds: “Not literally, of course.”

“It has a lot to do with my upbringing. My goal is to become the World No.1, and the best way to get there is to stay humble. My parents have always kept me in check,” says the 22-year-old. Dipika, now 12th in the world-ranking list, resides in Melbourne (Australia).

She trains with Sarah Elizabeth Fitz-Gerald, a former world champion, and states that life abroad also plays a part in keeping her grounded. “When I visit India, some people recognise me. But, in Australia, it is quite different.”

“I do not know about cricketers, but squash players are not used to the spotlight,” she says. She does, however, have a fair idea about one cricketer in particular. A few days ago, Dipika got engaged to India’s wicketkeeper-batsman Dinesh Karthik at a hotel in Chennai. “Dinesh has been a great influence on my life. I’m glad that we have each other to share the ups and downs in our careers,” she says. “My in-laws are terrific. They have welcomed me into their family; I’m very lucky.” Family, no doubt, means the world to the Chennai-born Dipika. She left home at the age of 13 to train in Egypt, and life as a professional athlete leaves little time for her with family.

“I haven’t been with them since I was 13. I think this has brought me closer to them. We all now live in Chennai, but we are from Ernakulam in Kerala,” she says.

And like most families from Kerala, the big occasions bring big entertainment. “We have a large family, so a wedding gives us the chance to meet all our aunts, uncles, cousins. It is great fun.” Life is on the road, however, takes a toll.

“Sometimes, I feel terrible when I think about everything I have missed - weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. I feel guilty, so I tell my dad to put me on Skype (video conference). I just want to see everything that is going on, but he refuses. He understands that I need to make all these sacrifices to become the world champion,” she says.

A little more prodding during the course of the interaction provides more opportunity for another potential ‘diva’ moment. Does it bother her that, at times, people tend to pay more attention to her appearance, rather than her game? “Not really, I understand that the attention comes only because of squash,” she says, emphasising the ‘feet firmly on the ground’ nature one more time.

ASHWIN ACHAL

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