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Time to start winning at the top: Saurav Ghosal

Ghosal, who turned pro in 2003, had been on the fringes of the big-time for a few years. Five Mays ago, he was world No. 15.

other sports Updated: May 19, 2019 09:06 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Saurav Ghosal,Squash,Asian Games
File image of India's Saurav Ghosal in action.(PTI)

If Saurav Ghosal could choose his last supper, it would be mutton biryani, Kolkata style. “The potato is optional but not the boiled egg,” he says, breaking with the established norm.

Being a foodie with a sweet tooth—“I get that from my mom,” he says—doesn’t make it easy for the world No. 10, but when you are aspiring to be in the top five, win “a massive, massive event”, and leave a legacy, you learn to avoid temptations. Especially because at 32 you have a “certain amount of time left in the game.” Ideally, till the next Commonwealth Games and Asian Games (both in 2022).

“Being a professional squash player and doing well is not just about how good a player you are,” Ghosal says. “It’s about everything that comes with it: how you are training, how you get out of bed when you don’t want to, how you take care of yourself, your ability to mentally stay there when things aren’t going brilliantly. You call yourself a professional athlete for a reason, otherwise you are just an athlete.”

To elucidate his point, Ghosal talks about his third-round exit at El Gouna International Open (Egypt) in April, which followed a quarter-final loss at Macau Open the same month.

“It had been a long season and I was probably a bit jaded mentally.” Soon after came the Asian Individual Squash Championship in Kuala Lumpur.

“Somehow I turned it around and my mental space was a lot better in the Asian championships and that is why the level of squash I produced was better,” Ghosal says. So, the moral of the story is to persevere because if you are true to what you are doing, at some point it is going to turn around. You also have to be smart about it, like reining yourself in just a little bit at training so that you can release when you really need to.”

We are inside the 225-year-old Calcutta Racket Club, a two-storey bungalow tucked between a cathedral and a planetarium, where Ghosal learnt the ropes. The squish of shoes on courts and the whiplash of a racket making the soft, dark ball crash into the wall with a dull thud provide the setting for the conversation with the newly-minted Asia champion on a brief stopover at home before the blue riband British Open, where he starts against world No. 4 Karim Gawad of Egypt on Tuesday.

The big jump

Ghosal, who turned pro in 2003, had been on the fringes of the big-time for a few years. Five Mays ago, he was world No. 15.

“There is a big jump to be made, squash-wise, mentality-wise and obviously the ability to do it week in and week out. Those three things took me that much time,” he says. “Since September last year it has been something I have been sort of building towards, something that happily happened for me on April 1 when I made the top 10.”

Crucial to the jump was signing up with Australian David Palmer, a former world No. 1 who lives in Ithaca, New York, and also trains world No. 2 Mohamed Elshorbagy of Egypt.

“I have the basic stuff, the foundation in place. How we can make that more lethal? How can we manage to do that at a higher intensity and more consistently against people who are my level and just below and also to be able to do that against players who are higher than I am? Those were the key points we discussed. There were tactical and technical adjustments too but those are very small. Also, there is greater focus on gameplans being individualised. So I think the level of detail is more than what it was two or five years back,” he says.

Ghosal is the second oldest in the top-10 though there are a few bunched in their 30s.

“Different people have different trajectories. Tarek Momen, for example, is world No. 3 and he is 31 and he has matured really well over the last one-and-a-half, two years. At nearly 37, Greg (former world No. 1 Gregory Gaultier) would have been in the top 10 but is injured. If I didn’t think I had an equal shout of making top 5 as Diego Elias (who is 22 and world No. 8), I wouldn’t be playing today.”

Watching art happen

It was when he became the junior world No. 1 that Ghosal thought he would make squash his calling. It would mean travelling to Leeds to train with Malcolm Willstrop because Ghosal liked the way Malcom’s son James (a former world No. 1) played.

“You have the idea of a conservative English player who is effective but not flamboyant. James was anything but. When I first saw him in the world juniors in Chennai in 2002, it was like watching art happen. Of course, the accuracy of James, no one probably in the history of the game has it but I would like to think I am close. That made me say I want to go and train with Malcolm,” he says.

He landed in Leeds in September when it was cold and he was miserable. For someone whose only visit to the kitchen prior to that was to put bread in a toaster, life was hard.

“But going to Malcolm, going to the Pontefract Squash and Leisure Club where I train, I have made friends for life. The relationship I have with Malcolm is beyond words,” he says. Ghosal had looked at three years when he first went to Leeds. He ended up staying for eight.

In 2013 Leeds was swapped for Kolkata and Chennai as bases.

“I want to live in India, always did. I want to do things in India. I could do stuff in Europe and USA but that doesn’t really interest me. So since I was going to be happier when I am here, I took on the travel bit.”

Bit? He goes to Leeds for training, to Ithaca for more training, and is often on the road alone for weeks.

Ghosal’s wife Diya, a graphic designer, is squash ace Dipika Pallikal Karthik’s sister, but she isn’t very interested in the sport.

“We have other things to talk about. We are interested in art, we are foodies and love travelling.”

Diya has been to only one tournament where he played, in Switzerland last March. “She didn’t come to the games because she was too stressed.” Ghosal lost in the quarter-final.

Art is important for the multiple Asian Games medallist.

“I want to win in a way that people enjoy watching me do it. That adds to your legacy. Yes the legacy is there in terms of me being an Indian player but what can I do to make that legacy on the world stage? That is what keeps me going.”

Tradition missed

Ghosal said while the scene has improved in India—there are about 800 playing the junior national championships, up from 300 in his time, but Egypt, which has five players in the top 10, would have that many in a local tournament. “And when you train with world champions daily, it is an experience that no amount of coaching or watching videos can substitute,” he says.

He missed that. “If I had a richer tradition in India to look up to, maybe then the expectations would have been higher and maybe that would have pushed me more. But I am a better player and person today because of what I have learnt over all those years.”

When he started, Ghosal said he was asked to aim for the top 30 because Ritwik Bhattacharya had got to a high of world No. 38. “When I passed him (in January 2009), I told myself that I would take it any day that I was five in the world and he was three in the world.”

Ghosal said his first thought on winning the British Open juniors (2004) was that “now an Indian will know it can be done.”

What’s changed from then is that boys now know what it takes to be in the top 10. “Now we are competing at the top end. The next step will be to start winning at the top end.”

First Published: May 19, 2019 08:33 IST