A whole new ballgame

The original poster-boy of Indian squash has now moved beyond the glass courts and was recently named as the South East Asia representative of the Professional Squash Association, the highest player body in world squash and responsible for governing and showcasing the game. By Uthra Ganesan.

Ritwik Bhattacharya picked up the squash racquet in the late 1990s, a time when the game was associated more with evening recreation and an avenue for corporate networking. From then to now, as squash stands on the verge of getting an entry into the Olympics, the sport has come a long way.

The original poster-boy of Indian squash, though, has now moved beyond the glass courts and was recently named as the South East Asia representative of the Professional Squash Association, the highest player body in world squash and responsible for governing and showcasing the game. The 32-year-old took time out from his busy schedule for this chat with Sportstar.

Question: What was the idea behind this decision (to become a PSA office-bearer) and how did it come about?

Answer: Well, I have been in the PSA for many years now. My ideal scenario was always to help the PSA promote the sport, especially in South East Asia, because there was not enough focus on this region. The idea is to create new events because there have been some great players from this region, there is a lot of talent here but we need a lot more events in this part of the world.

What do you think are the main challenges in getting more players from this region?

There is a big representation of players from here on the world stage but there could be more. Pakistan was one of the biggest contributors but has not been as strong in the recent past because of their own problems. There is Azlan (Iskander) and Ong Beng Hee from Malaysia, who have been in the top-10 for at least 10 years now. Sourav is 18th in the world, a first for an Indian. So there is definite growth in the region — in China, Korea, Indonesia and Singapore.

What would be your first responsibility in the new job?

Well, the first thing would be just spread the word around, get in touch with anyone who wants to hold an event and help them in every way — right from deciding on the dates of a tournament to getting sponsorship. The idea is to put on more events and that’s why I am here — to help any promoter or player to join the PSA.

What kind of tournament structure are you looking at?

There are many ideas. Right now, I am just checking out how best to position possible tournaments and then we will start working with all the stakeholders — the World Squash Federation, the national and state associations and clubs that conduct squash — anyone who would be willing to conduct a PSA event.

Unfortunately, India lost out on a major event when Punj Lloyd didn’t continue with the Masters, which saw the top 32 players in the world participate, in 2011. It’s been one of my dreams to bring the World Open to India, but I am not thinking of it right now. Let’s start small and hold more PSA events to get more juniors on the world tour. One big event may not have the same impact as having five or six smaller events.

Ritwik Bhattacharya shares a light moment with Dipika Pallikal.-V. GANESAN

A lot of recently retired players in many sports get into coaching or player management. What made you to take up organising events instead and do you see yourself coaching youngsters in the future?

I love squash and I love to see more events all around the world. My aim is to showcase the talent all over the country and make the sport a spectacle in itself. I have been working with some players for a while now in Mumbai, trying to help anyone on the tour because I know exactly what they are going through, the pushes and the struggle, and try to do my best. India is doing well in squash at the moment but we need a bigger base. The players currently on tour need to work harder and believe in themselves because we have the ability to be right up there, as Saurav has shown.

Injuries were largely responsible for cutting your own career short. Any regrets?

No regrets, I had a fantastic time playing and I am still enjoying myself. In fact, it’s actually been nice to be in one place for a while after travelling for 15 years for 30 weeks a year. Sometimes I do get up and wish I could go and play a tournament but you have to come to terms with that. It took me a whole year to get out of it because everything I ever did was for squash — training, eating, sleeping, walking, gym, everything, and suddenly not having it in my life took some adjustment. I am still travelling a lot and with this PSA representative thing I will be travelling a lot more, so that should be fun.

How is your equation with the current lot of players?

Lot of these guys are seven to eight years younger and have literally grown up in front of me, been on the tour with me and shared a lot of moments. Even girls like Joshna Chinappa and Dipika Pallikal, it’s been amazing to see them flower and take the sport to new heights, which is the best thing for me in a way because it validates whatever I have done.

What about the push for an Olympic spot for squash?

The WSF and the PSA are doing great work, especially with the bid for Olympics in 2020. There has been a lot of thrust on marketing in the last four years, ever since we failed to make the cut for 2016. Squash is tailor-made for the Olympics because it’s easy to organise and there will be a lot of benefit to the sport.

After being the flag-bearer of Indian squash for more than a decade, would there be any regrets if it does make it to the Olympics and you would not be there?

I would have loved to have played. I have been lucky, I played at the Commonwealth Games so I can imagine what the Olympics will be like. And if an Indian team goes to the Olympics and manages to win a medal there — that would be something. But that is a pipe dream right now.

You have to be aware of your own limits. Moreover, now that I have been helping a lot of players, I realise there is as much joy in your players doing well as if you are doing well, which is actually a good place to be since you don’t have to be going in and doing it yourself all the time!

Are there any chances of your coming back to competitive squash?

I don’t know right now. Maybe I will play again. I have been playing some good squash so there is always the desire to put on my squash shoes, get the racquet off the wall and go back . But the kids are doing a lot better. The best thing is to let the next generation improve and that in a way is your achievement also.