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Vol. XXXIII No. 17, December 16-31, 2023

Velavan and Rajeev among National Squash title winners

-- by S.R. Suryanarayan

November was the month for the senior national squash championship, hosted at the Indian Squash and Triathlon Academy in Chennai. Among the winners in various categories, two names had added interest because they were from the city. Velavan Senthilkumar emerged victorious in the men’s category while veteran Rajeev Reddy was the pick in the Over-70 yrs category.

What had made the 25-year old Velavan’s win something special was because it was his maiden national crown in the seniors and a reaffirmation that this talented young man was ready for bigger challenges. One of those early pupils at the Squash Academy in early 2000, Velavan had quite soon caught the eyes of his coaches the Malaysian Maj S. Maniam and the then national coach Cyrus Poncha (currently the Secretary General of the Squash Rackets Federation of India). They had seen in him the next big name in Indian squash and another prized product from the Academy. A tennis player who turned to squash, Velavan was quick to pick up the nuances of the sport and being a left hander lent an additional dimension to his court play.

Velavan Senthilkumar in action. Picture courtesy: The Hindu.

It did not take long for him to showcase his rich talent with title-wins in the national championship, British junior Open (U-19) and the Asian junior championship came one after the other for what seemed a start to a golden career. But the demands of academics took precedence and before anyone knew, this sprightly lad had flown away to the US for studies. That break from squash at the national level kept him away from avid squash lovers for a while even as he tried to keep in touch with the sport with his activities in the professional circuit. The Tamil Nadu lad did make an attempt to regain attention with an enterprising return to form in the national championship last year but Abhay Singh, his stable mate took away the honours in the final clash.

But the year 2023 has begun to prove different. The burden of studies over, Velavan has decided to take a full plunge into squash to make a mark. From somewhere outside the 200 in the PSA ranking he came to his career best of 63 this October (he is on 66 now) and in the process he added four more PSA titles (totally 7 now) into his kitty. Not just that he had come close to clinching the Asian championship title before bowing out to the reigning champion from Malaysia, Eain Yow Ng in the final. Eain it must be mentioned here had won the Asian Games gold beating India’s best bet Saurav Ghosal.

Now, this year-end success in the national championship at the expense of Abhay has given him tremendous joy and inspiration for more. Only weeks earlier, Abhay had beaten him in the final at the National Games in Goa. “A bad day” was all he had to say on that reverse but when the opportunity came again as it did in the Chennai national, Velavan was back at his best but there is so much more to do he realises.

Consistency is an aspect he is learning the hard way. Failing to get into the Indian team for the Hangzhou Asian Games was big disappointment. “I just could not get along” was all he had to say on the downturn in the trials. But the young man wishes to put all that behind and look ahead with renewed enthusiasm and energy. To go up in the world rankings and shine in the Olympics (squash is being introduced as a sport in the 2028 edition) are his goals. With time on his hand and ambition high, here in an Indian player who would increasingly demand attention as the days go by.

As for now, the man who has been gaining attention at the veteran’s level is Rajeev. A world referee in squash which enables him go around the globe and watch and officiate top rung competition, Rajeev’s last big assignment was the Hangzhou Asian games. A member of the MCC, squash had caught up with him as a form of recreation initially before the competitive element took over. The senior level competition opened up opportunities. Over 45 yrs title was his first reward and from then this veteran never looked back. Over 55 yrs, Over 60 and Over 65 yrs followed by which time he had a healthy collection of around 10 titles! What came as a turning point, as he said was his officiating in a World Masters competition once where he took charge of the Over-80 yrs competition. Stuck by the way the two senior competitors went about on the court, Rajeev realised age can be just a number and that has inspired him to go on in pursuit of more success. The 72-year old has by his latest triumph, won the Over 70 yrs category twice and yes, there is hopefully more to come. With hockey and tennis his additional pastimes, Rajeev in every sense breathes sports!

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