The squash spearhead

Saurav Ghosal thinks highly of his team-mates Harinder Pal Singh, Kush Kumar and Mahesh Mangaonkar.-

“Indian squash is in a healthy state right now. We can easily call ourselves the golden generation of Indian squash. In terms of quality we have currently among the best in the world and by that I can say we have done fantastically well to raise the bar in the last few years,” Saurav Ghosal tells Amitabha Das Sharma.

Saurav Ghosal has given Indian squash international recognition and has amassed many firsts in a glittering career spread over a decade. The world witnessed the latest essay of his excellence in the Asian Games where he created two firsts — winning the individual silver before guiding the Indian men’s team to a golden finish.

The 28-year-old champion from Kolkata makes no bones about the fact that he had the courage to dream big and the determination to work hard and realise it. Currently ranked 16 in the world, Saurav says that by breaching the top-20 of the world rankings he has created the path for the new generation to reach even higher.

Excerpts:

Question: How do you look at the history you and your team created at the Asian Games this time? Having won a bronze each in the previous three editions, did you anticipate a better performance this time?

Answer: I knew it was going to be extremely hard and that’s what it turned out to be. In the individuals I had a pretty hard draw and I had to be at my best on every single day to get through the draw. I met almost all the best players in Asia in the 10-12 days and I lost just one match (the individual final against Abdullah Al-Muzayen of Kuwait) and that I think is a pretty good stat.

What about the Indian men making a golden harvest in the team event? Was the title determined more by the presence of Saurav Ghosal?

It was a great team effort. I could have played the best squash of my life and we could have still lost. We got through the group stages pretty comfortably to reach the semis. In the group stage I played only one match (against Japan) but the other three boys (Harinderpal Singh Sandhu, Mahesh Mangaonkar and Kush Kumar) hauled the team to the semis as I was recovering after gruelling draws in the individuals. In the team semis we played Kuwait and Mahesh played a great match against the Kuwati No. 2 (Altamimi A.I.A. Ammar) before I beat (Almezayen) Abdullah to seal the final spot. In the final Harinder played first and produced one of the best matches, if not the best match, of his career to beat Malaysian Azlan (Iskandar) and give us the precious 1-0 lead. If these guys had not played so well to win the crucial games, you won’t be asking me how we won the gold.

How do you assess the current position of squash in the country, especially after what players like you, Deepika Pallikal and Joshna Chinappa have achieved all these years?

Indian squash is in a healthy state right now. We can easily call ourselves the golden generation of Indian squash. In terms of quality we have currently among the best in the world and by that I can say we have done fantastically well to raise the bar in the last few years. Luckily we have another four-five years of top quality squash left in us and we can raise the bar even further. That would also inspire the generation after us to reach even higher as they are no longer in the uncharted territory anymore.

How does your current position in the world rankings help Indian squash?

I think it will give the junior or up and coming players the belief that it is really possible. That’s an important thing as a lot of people even a few years ago did not believe that breaking into the top-20 was possible. But now they are beginning to believe in attaining something even higher.

I can see this inherent belief in the juniors now when they play. Especially in players like Kush (Kumar), Ramit (Tandon) and Mahesh (Mangaonkar) I can see the belief that this can be done. I think that is the best way my current position in the world rankings has influenced Indian squash.

How difficult was it to get into the professional circuit and sustain a persistently good performance to reach this ranking?

I had to wait for around five months to collect enough points to play a professional tournament (in 2003). Staying there is even harder as you do not make much money in the bottom rounds of the rankings. So, financially it is tougher, as you have to go to unheard of places to play a small tournament and gather adequate points. It has always been a very big challenge and that’s what has kept me interested and made the training to achieve something big worthwhile. I like the charm of fighting against the odds and coming out a winner.

Professionally you have attained something which no Indian has done before. Who do you attribute your success to?

As a professional squash player I have to admit that (English coach) Malcolm Willstrop was solely responsible for the way I play today. If I had not started training under him eight years ago, I wouldn’t have reached where I am today. He taught me a lot and also created the chance of training with (his son and former World No. 1) James Willstrop on a daily basis. I will always remain hugely indebted to him.

How much of an influence did Ritwik Bhattacharya have on your career? After all, you are the one who bettered him in both the professional circuit and also in the national scenario.

We shared a pretty good relationship and were hard opponents on the court. After he retired he began coaching and I spent a bit of time with him, picking his brains on certain things. He also helped me on particular aspects of my game. He had a different perspective of things, which helped me approach the game differently.

Ritwik Bhattacharya was the first Indian to break into the top 50 of the world rankings. You went even further breaking into the top 20. How do you describe this?

I think all of us are trying to do as well as we can to go higher in the rankings. People behind me are trying to do well as well, so it is not the end of the road. Having crossed one milestone we look to reach the next. I would like to make the top 10 and then be the world No. 1. I am happy that I am the first at something and I hope I will be the first at something even bigger in the near future.

Among the next generation of squash players in your team, who do you think will match your excellence internationally?

I think all of them are very talented and have potential in different forms. I think Harinder has a lot of potential and he plays with a lot of confidence. Mahesh is 20 (years old) and has played very well in the last year or so. He is definitely the one to look out for. Kush Kumar has created history by becoming the first Indian to reach the semifinals of the World Juniors in Namibia in August. Another Kolkata boy, Ramit Tandon, is also playing fantastic squash. He will be finishing college next summer and will be able to play the professional circuit after that. These four guys are just behind me. They are all young and have the potential to produce something bigger in the world of squash.

Getting into the top 50 of the world rankings was something unachievable even a few years ago. You and Ritwick breached the barrier. What made you achieve this?

I think both of us believe a lot in our ability and have the dream to attain a level of excellence. And we worked extremely hard at what we believed in and reached where we did in the world rankings. And if I am able to maintain this level of discipline and dedication it will take me further than where I am right now.