An undefeated season is no joke. Especially when you’re a freshman.
Saksham Choudhary has not dropped a single match for Penn men’s squash throughout his time with the team. For anyone counting, that’s 36 games in 12 matches where the Delhi, India native has walked away with a win for the Red and Blue.
In a promising season for the Quakers (10-2, 4-1 Ivy), Choudhary has been a mainstay, producing consistent results on any and every court that he has touched.
The freshman is one of three Quakers who hail from India, joined by fellow freshman Tushar Shahani and junior Yash Bhargava. Six years ago, at the beginning of coach Gilly Lane’s tenure, 2017 College graduate Rahil Fazelbhoy jumpstarted a network into India, allowing the Red and Blue the opportunity to recruit great talent from the country.
“The university and India in general have always had a really strong relationship in terms of the student population," Lane said. "We are consistently looking for the best and the brightest in the world, and we want to have people from everywhere."
It was at the British Junior Open where Choudhary was first exposed to Penn squash. One of the most competitive squash tournaments in the world, the British Open is a hotbed for recruiting squash talent from around the world. Penn squash annually sends representatives there, in addition to the U.S. Junior Open and the World Junior Open.
Choudhary progressed all the way to the quarterfinals at the British Junior Open in 2018, a very impressive feat that cemented his name on the list of international talents. In addition, the year prior, he had won the Indian Junior Squash Championship, earning him at a No. 1 ranking for U17 squash that year.
“When I came here for college, it was actually the first time I had ever been to the States. I didn’t come to visit any schools here, so whatever I knew was from the internet or from what I had heard about these colleges,” Choudhary said. “Really the major reason I chose Penn was meeting [coach Lane] at that Open.”
Choudhary first picked up a racket eight years earlier, when he was only 10 years old. His brother, four years his elder, was a huge proponent of the sport, and the two trained under the same coaches for many years in India. When his high school coach passed away last year in May, the loss of a huge presence in his squash career gave entirely new meaning to his accomplishments.
“My biggest achievement will always be the fact that my coach saw me win Nationals and he saw me get to the No. 1 ranking in India in U17s,” said Choudhary.
Since then, the freshman has continued to pay tribute to such an influential presence in his life by playing the game they both shared a passion for, and he has thrived.
The transition from youth tournaments to college play is not expected to be easy, but the freshman has proven himself incredibly adaptable.
“The changing from the junior level game to a collegiate game becomes more physical and becomes faster. They’re playing tougher competition, maybe more frequently,” Lane said.
While he is undefeated in his official season matches, Saksham lost a pair of matches during the pre-season exhibition Ivy Scrimmages in early November.
“When he first got here, he had to adapt his game to the collegiate style. He really learned from [the Ivy Scrimmages] and started working on his game and transitioned his game into a more mature, senior level game,” Lane said. “He’s strengthened his strengths but he’s also improved his weaknesses, which as a coach is unbelievable to see."
Since then, Choudhary has continued to put up incredible performances for the Red and Blue. Of his 12 individual match wins, nine of them have been in three straight games. He’s seen only two four-game matches: against No. 2 ranked Harvard, the only conference loss the Quakers have seen this season, and Dartmouth.
His most difficult challenge of the season was against top-ranked Trinity. After winning the first game and then dropping the next two, the freshman recovered in the fourth game to leave the fate of the match on the final game. He ultimately prevailed and was responsible for winning one of three points that the Quakers were able to rack up against the Bantams, a huge marker of the team’s continued progress towards the top of the College Squash Association.
“The thing that keeps me motivated the most right now is that I need to perform for the team,” Choudhary said. “It’s much more than my performance individually and how it’s going to affect me individually. My win gets that one point for the team, which could be crucial for the team."
The Delhi native clearly has a great deal of athleticism and talent for the sport. Despite the success of his individual track record thus far, the freshman has embraced the team-centric approach to collegiate squash. As he nears the end of his debut season, with only two conference matches left — this weekend against Columbia and Cornell — and the CSA Championships at the end of February, Lane is confident that the freshman will continue to contribute for the Red and Blue.
“He’s an unbelievable asset for our team. I want to continue to see him be open-minded, and to try new things,” Lane said. “I would love to see him continue to strengthen his strengths and become more of a complete player. We rely on him a lot as a freshman, and he’s done a great job, but I think that he also knows he has a lot of room to grow."
There’s never been a better time on Penn squash for just that. With standout talent junior Andrew Douglas approaching his final year with the Red and Blue, and a great deal of positive momentum flowing throughout the team, the continued development of players like Choudhary is what can put the Quakers over the edge.