Sportstar Podcast: Saurav Ghosal on burnout, retirement and finding the joy in playing squash again

Veteran Indian squash player Saurav Ghosal talks to Sportstar about his retirement announcement, the footnotes to wanting to still play for India and what his vision board looks like with an eye on the LA Summer Olympics.

Published : May 09, 2024 15:58 IST , CHENNAI - 22 MINS READ

Saurav Ghosal
Saurav Ghosal | Photo Credit: R Ragu/The Hindu

Saurav Ghosal | Photo Credit: R Ragu/The Hindu

Picture this. You’ve dedicated over 30 years of your life to a sport, 21 of those competing at the highest level, and it’s now time to take a few steps back. How must that feel? Ask veteran Indian squash player Saurav Ghosal who recently announced his retirement from the PSA tour - the professional circuit of the sport - at the age of 37.

In the five weeks between mentally making peace with his decision and the actual announcement and thereafter, Ghosal has been reliving the best and worst of his storied career in conversations with peers, tributes in the media and messages from his opponents and fans alike.

While it’s been a while since he has picked up a squash racquet and is now focussing on the slow life with indulgences he couldn’t succumb to while immersed in the rigours of the competition cycle, Ghosal is far from done with his tryst with squash, with his sights set on the Los Angeles Summer Olympics in 2028. Excerpts from a chat with the legend at his Chennai residence.

Listen to the full chat on all major podcast platforms.

Between an impressive Asian Games campaign last year and now, what changed? When did you feel like you’re done with the PSA circuit and when did that whole retirement conversation start?

Ever since I turned 30 (2016), I’ve taken things one season at a time because you never know how your body and your mind is going to feel. That was the same mindset going into the new season last August. I remember having a chat with David Palmer (his coach) when I was training with him in Ithaca during the summer where I told him that I didn’t want to go into the Asian Games thinking it was my last one. There are enough things to deal with when you’re at a big multi-sport event like the Asian Games and I didn’t want another thought process in my head going on in the background. I said, we’re going to train with the idea that we’re going to get through this entire season and then, we’ll take a call at the end of the season – which is the summer of this year – and see where we are at. 

On the last night of the Asian Games, which was the individual final, it just felt in some ways that it was an endpoint, but I didn’t want to read into it a lot because I lost that day and I got slightly injured and I felt like it was just too raw a time to be able to take any sort of decision.

So, I put it to the back of my mind. I thought I’d just get away. I was injured anyway and knew that I had to take some time off to recover and then come back and see how I feel and that’s what I did. But for some reason, there was this nagging feeling in my head through the months that I was still playing. I was going into tournaments thinking about that at different points in time which has never happened to me in my career before.

Sometimes, when you’re going to the airport, you’re like, “Ah, I wish I didn’t have to go.” Once I’m at the tournament, I’ve always been very excited to play and compete and playing on some very nice stages around the world has been brilliant but these last few months, starting out in November, when I played my first tournament after the Asian Games and leading up to the Windy City Open in Chicago in February, there were different points in time where I felt like mentally I wasn’t fully there. And physically, there were certain small things which were going on with my body which weren’t letting me play at the very best. Nothing major but things which were just holding me back. That made me sit up and take notice in my head a little bit more. When I came back from Chicago at the end of February, I discussed this with my wife, Dia, and my dad.

I’ve played for so long and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the entire journey. I just felt like I didn’t want, well, let’s say, the last phase of my professional career to be a phase that I didn’t look back fondly upon, not just in terms of results, but in terms of purely the journey of enjoying playing - going to tournaments, being with different people and things like that  

Playing for India has always been the epitome of everything. Winning medals for India has been unbelievable. The opportunity to play for India has been an absolute privilege and honour and I just felt, to play for a bit longer, I had to take a call somewhere. I couldn’t do everything although I would love to. I still watch some of the matches and I feel like I have some withdrawal symptoms at certain points in time but it’s a difficult call because it’s been a part of me for so long.

The tipping point was when I was not continuing to play the PSA because I absolutely love doing it. I was continuing to play more because I was scared of letting go because I’ve done it for so long. When I realised that and accepted that, I felt it can’t be that I have something which I’m scared of, which is making me stay here. It should be a positive reinforcement rather than a negative thing. That’s when I said this is going to be very hard and we’re going to step into the unknown in a lot of ways but you have to do it at some point. Also, understanding that there was no wrong or right time to do this. It was more about me making peace with the decision, whenever I did take it and that was a process that I had to go through and for the most part, I have made peace with it.

How has your support system responded to this decision?

My wife and my dad are quietly happy for themselves but sad for me because they get to spend more time with me. They understand the gravity of that decision because this is something I have done all my life and it is something that is not easy to let go but they are very good sounding boards for me and they’re very level and grounded people which always helps. With James (Willstrop) and David (Palmer, both his coaches), it was more a question of understanding how I can squeeze the best out of me for as long as I possibly can. There were a few discussions about whether I could push it till the end of the season and then take a call because both of them felt that, in terms of absolute level of play, I was actually playing very well. Luckily, they have had very long careers as well. So, both understood and were empathetic of where I was coming from, the mental standpoint. They also realised that if there was a chance where I could elongate the career slightly to play for India, then this was the way to do it. There is no guarantee because it is an experiment in a lot of ways. There are a lot of variables involved. There is going to be a lot of trial and error in terms of understanding. To begin, how to train for a tournament which is not three or four weeks away but rather six months away. Those variables are unknown but in a lot of ways, it’s a nice challenge to have and we’re hoping that that challenge keeps me stimulated for slightly longer and helps me play a little bit longer and do well for India. 

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Did you also discuss this with the other two big stars of Indian squash, Joshna Chinappa and Dipika Pallikal? How did they react? 

To be honest, I don’t think I Involved them in the decision-making process but of course they knew before I made the official announcement. Dipika has kind of done this in some ways. So, she was definitely prepared for this in some form. Joshna was caught a little bit more unaware and her first reaction was like, ‘But why? You could still play.’  

When you play a sport on a professional circuit for 20 years, you get used to that routine. Have you thought about how you are going to deal with that FOMO- the fear of missing out?

Right now, I absolutely love it. That grind is very tough. One of the things that we discussed was that if I’m going to do this, then I need to get away from the grind for a good four or five months because the mind and the body just need time to heal and rejuvenate and replenish itself. So, for two months, I was obviously not training. I was doing a lot of things that I’ve not done over all these years. Small things like going out shopping with my wife or sitting with my dad and having tea or coffee in the evening and then days where I’m not actually doing anything and just having conversations and discussions. I feel a lot more excited even to watch squash now and I think that’s good. For the next few months, (it’s about) not playing as much squash but focusing on the physicality a little bit more so that when I do start playing a little bit more from late August or early September, I have three months out before the World Teams in December so that I’m in a position where I don’t have to start from ground zero and I can focus on the squash straight away. Squash is a game where you can hit the ball very well but it doesn’t help if you don’t get to the ball.

It must be a challenge for your coach as well to train somebody who has retired from PSA but still wants to play for the country. Did they recommend not retiring and just scaling back on PSA?

If I’m playing PSA, I’m playing to be the best I can be and have the highest ranking that I can possibly be and the way the PSA is structured is that to be able to do that, you have to play a minimum of 15 tournaments a year. Add the tournaments for India and you’re talking 7-18 tournaments a year. It’s almost impossible to cut it down. The other option is I don’t really push for all events, but I go all out for a few. However, my makeup from the start is that if I step on the court, I can’t not push.

The decision wasn’t so much about pushing for tournaments or even the training, it was more about the constant travel and living the life of a professional player. That was getting to me after all these years. This new reality now is an experiment, both for me and for my team. Just because it’s not been done before, it doesn’t mean it cannot be done now. We’re going to do everything we can. We’ll prepare the best we can, like I’ve always done and then once you’ve controlled all these controllables, we’ll leave it to the uncontrollables to take care of themselves.

The 37-year-old, a winner of 10 PSA Tour titles and a 13-time National men’s singles champion, said it was a decision that he took after deliberating for a while. “I felt like the mind and the body have just been running on fumes a little bit. So, it needed some time to heal. So I’m trying to give it that time. 
The 37-year-old, a winner of 10 PSA Tour titles and a 13-time National men’s singles champion, said it was a decision that he took after deliberating for a while. “I felt like the mind and the body have just been running on fumes a little bit. So, it needed some time to heal. So I’m trying to give it that time.  | Photo Credit: R Ragu/ The Hindu

The 37-year-old, a winner of 10 PSA Tour titles and a 13-time National men’s singles champion, said it was a decision that he took after deliberating for a while. “I felt like the mind and the body have just been running on fumes a little bit. So, it needed some time to heal. So I’m trying to give it that time.  | Photo Credit: R Ragu/ The Hindu

How did the Squash Rackets Federation of India and the administrators react when you said that you are retiring from PSA but you still want to play for India?

They were obviously privy to the decision before the announcement. Me saying that I ‘want’ to play for India almost feels like it’s my god-given right to play. It’s not. I realise that I have to earn that spot and personally, I know that if I’m not good enough to win the whole thing with a realistic shot, then I myself wouldn’t want to do it. They (SRFI) said ‘Whenever you decide you want to come back, let us know and we will try and facilitate that in the best way possible.’ Of course, I will have to earn the spot whether it be through trials or whatever. And in a way, it’s good for me because I get some matches, right?

How much of a temptation or motivation is that opportunity to be an Olympian, given there’s no guarantee of the sport’s future in the charter after LA?

I’d be lying if I said that the Olympics was not on my mind. Being an Olympian is a big honour for any sports person. I am working right now to be in the best possible shape for December for the World Teams. And then we go to the next one, which is the Asian Individual Championships (May, June 2025), and then we go to the World Cup (next December) which is in Chennai. Then there’s the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games in 2026. If I feel like I am producing a level of play which is going to get me to the Olympics, then we have a discussion.

In terms of qualification criteria, nothing is official. Surely, there’ll be a route available through the PSA rankings, a quota, but this door is closed for me. There is a good chance that there will be some sort of a regional quota. So maybe the Asian Games will be a qualification route. These might be clear only close to 2026. For me, playing any tournament for India has never been about just being there, I want to do something where I feel like I can genuinely try to win something. I know that I won’t have that ranking, I won’t have the constant match practice against the top guys which is going to be a hindrance. But I feel like, at this stage in my career, the most important thing for me is, my body and my mind have to be in the best shape possible and for that to happen in 28, playing 18 tournaments a year for the next four years… we’re pushing the rock really high up hill to make that possible. Whereas this way, the workload is a lot lower, I have a lot longer to recover between tournaments.

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Last year, during the Nationals, we spoke to a few players to find out what needs to be focussed on now that the sport is headed to the Olympics. Some of them asked for better sparring partners, more challenger events and the like. What are your thoughts?

Having tournaments in India is great and it helps a lot of players who might not have probably travelled much to begin with an opportunity and an insight into a certain level of players on the professional circuit. But, if you want to win a medal at the Olympics in 2028, you have to win at the big events. There are no two ways about it. Hypothetically, if you’re playing for an Olympic medal this year, in the men’s vertical, you’d have to beat people like Ali Farag and Diego Elias and Mostafa Asal, and Mohamed El Shorbagy. You’re not going to be up against people who are ranked 70th in the world. You have to beat the top guys. The aim has to be to get into these big events consistently and try and beat players in the top 20. In terms of the training, you can only have sparring partners for short stints if you’re getting people from outside. The entire system has to get better in terms of all the players playing better. I feel we have a very misplaced belief that you can’t train with your rivals because they are competing for the same spots and if you play with them, they will know how you play and hence you know you’re letting your game out and things like that. I think that’s stupid to another level because if you take the best country in the world today – Egypt – everyone plays with everyone. I played with Tarek Momen on Monday, Karim Abdel Gawad on Tuesday, Fares Dessouky on Wednesday and they’re all playing with each other too and they play in tournaments as well. I wouldn’t be even close to how good I am now if I didn’t have, say, Ramit Tandon, who I train with so much, to play with. And I don’t think Ramit would be as good as he is if he didn’t have me to play with. We’ve trained so much together and that’s why we’ve become better together. And he’s doing well, he is in the top 40 in the world, highest ranked Indian right now. So I think that is something to understand that everyone has to get better together, that’s when you have people to play with a lot more.

One thing that can get better is the quality of expertise available in India. We don’t quite have what’s needed to produce someone who’s going to make the top 20 or top 30 in the world. There is a reason why I go to David (Palmer) and James (Wilstrop) right? There’s a reason why Ramit is in New York quite a bit, there’s a reason why Velavan (Senthilkumar), a national champion right now, goes to Barcelona. We would love to stay in Chennai, or somewhere in India and live here for the most part. That’s a lot easier to do. That is where we have to try and fill the void a little bit. The higher you go, there are a lot of subtleties in the game that have to be kind of relayed to the players because they at least have to have recognition of those aspects. They might not have the skills straightaway to execute those abilities but if they have no recognition, then they won’t even try to execute those bits.

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Reflecting on your PSA tour career of over two decades, do you have any regrets or any unfulfilled goals?

The only one that stands out for me is that I wanted to make single digits in the rankings, perhaps make the top five. The rankings work in such a way that you need a few matches to go your way. There have been a few matches over the last four or five years where I’ve been up against some of the top guys and have been very close to winning them, the last one probably being against Diego at the World Championships last year in Chicago. If you win these kinds of matches, the draw opens up a lot more. If you have one or two good tournaments like that. suddenly from like 12-13 in the world, you’re up to eight, nine at least, if not higher. That would be the one thing that I wish had fallen in place for me. Having said that, when I began playing squash aged eight, I didn’t even know what PSA was, I didn’t even know it existed till I was 15-16 and at that point in time, no Indian had ever made top 50 in the world. When I was 18, Ritwik (Bhattacharya) was ranked 38 in the world, which was the highest. At that point, I thought, ‘Well, no one’s made the top 30 in the world. So let’s do it.” If I had to go back and look at myself as a kid, and someone told me that you would finish with whatever I have right now,I would have beaten the hand off and said thank you very much and then walked away. As a human, you always want more but you also have to be grateful for everything that has happened and you have achieved, and I’m thankful for that.

After the announcement, a lot of people reached out saying that they enjoyed watching me play and that they really respected the way I played and the way I carry myself both on and off the court. Leaving that sort of a legacy is also something that has always been important to me. And I’m just really glad that I have managed to do that over such a long period of time.

While discussing age, you have another athlete in the family who is excelling in professional sport in the late stages of his career - your brother-in-law Dinesh Karthik. Do you two talk about your experiences, exchange notes? 

I think both of us have been part of this process for such a long time that the clarity in terms of what we want to do and how we want to do it is very much there. I think the hard part is generating desire on a consistent basis and finding things which will keep you going for long enough. That is something you have to grapple with at different points through the years and the older you get, those points become more frequent. At the core of it, you have to love the sport that you play. If you don’t really really love it, then it becomes very difficult because then you’re holding on to external factors to keep you going. I think both of us genuinely love the sports we do. Dinesh watches a ridiculous amount of cricket for the amount he plays himself. I don’t watch as much squash as Dinesh watches cricket. I don’t think you think about how old you are and things like that. The question is whether it is giving you the most joy? And if the answer is yes, then whether you’re 22, or like 37-38, it doesn’t really matter.

What does the vision board for you look like now?

The Asian Games is definitely one on the list. I would love to have the individual gold. I’m very fortunate and grateful to have the two team goals. That’s something that, growing up, I really wanted to have. If I can make it to the Asiad, and if I can get two medals, it will take me up to 11 medals, which will basically equal P.T. Usha’s haul at the Games. It will be nice to have a squash player on the list with someone like her who’s obviously done unbelievable things herself. The individual medal at the Commonwealth Games was a big thing and if I can better that then great. One thing which would be nice is, Dipika and I have not won gold in the mixed doubles. We have the silver and the bronze and it would be nice to kind of get the gold too. If all works out and if the Olympics happens, getting there itself would be an achievement, but if a medal happens then it will trump everything else. These are the things that keep me up at night.

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