Saurav Ghosal continues to live the dream in a season like no other

In his nearly two-decade-long career, Ghosal has not been a stranger to success. But this year has been a bit more gratifying.

Saurav Ghosal celebrates his victory in the men’s singles bronze medal match at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Saurav Ghosal celebrates his victory in the men’s singles bronze medal match at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. | Photo Credit: LUKE WALKER

In his nearly two-decade-long career, Ghosal has not been a stranger to success. But this year has been a bit more gratifying.

The murmur rose to a din. Saurav Ghosal, now alone on the court, closed his eyes, raised his arms and soaked in the moment. Pointing skywards, he flashed a wide smile.

Ghosal’s wildest dream had just become a reality. He had just won an individual squash medal at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, beating the home favourite James Willstrop. A loss to Paul Coll in the semifinal meant the colour was only bronze, but it was India’s first singles medal nonetheless. 

A few months earlier, Ghosal had won his maiden gold medal at the World Doubles Championship in Glasgow, teaming up with Dipika Pallikal.

“I will cherish 2022,” he says. “A lot of good things have happened. There have been phases where I have not felt the best, and it’s been hard. It’s good to have something to show for all the sacrifice and hard work,” Ghosal says about his triumphs during the year. 

In his nearly two-decade-long career, Ghosal has not been a stranger to success. But this year has been a bit more gratifying.

On Friday, he made his year even sweeter, leading India to its first gold medal at the men’s Asian Team Championship. The team comprising Ghosal, Ramit Tandon, Abhay Singh and Velavan Senthilkumar beat Kuwait 3-0 in the final to seal the top prize in Cheongju. 

India held an impressive record before the 2022 edition, having won 10 medals since the tournament’s inception in 1981. The gold, however, had eluded it. Just last year, India faltered at the final hurdle and lost to Malaysia. 

“We came close on a few occasions in the past, but for whatever reason that did not transpire into us winning the gold. In terms of performances, we had been right up there,” Ghosal says. 

This year, India started the tournament by sweeping the group. Clubbed with Qatar, Pakistan, South Korea, Kuwait and Taipei, India won its five group ties without losing a single match.

Ghosal, the World No. 18 and highest-ranked player in the tournament, dropped just one game in the four matches he played. In the semifinal against Malaysia, Ghosal pulled India level with a thrilling five-game win over World No. 22 Eain-Yow NG. Tandon won the decider to set up the summit clash with Kuwait. 

“As a team, we did well to get through our matches, clinically and professionally. That gave us a good platform to build on for the knockouts. 

“It has been coming for a few years, and to eventually win is always a good feeling,” Ghosal adds. 

The victory is yet another small triumph in the effort to make squash a mainstream sport in India. Despite players like Ghosal and Pallikal grabbing eyeballs by winning on the world stage, squash has struggled to appeal to the masses. It is nowhere close to other racquet sports like badminton and table tennis. It lacks access and is still seen as an ‘elitist’ sport that requires high costs. 

Integration at the grassroots might help the cause, Ghosal hopes. “I think it is a wrong notion that squash is a very expensive sport. It’s a lot cheaper than other sports like tennis,” he says. 

“There needs to be a concerted effort in building, not something too expensive and fancy, but just the basic infrastructure. Get it into schools. Give them a court, a racquet and a ball, and they can learn the sport at a basic level. We’ll have more kids playing. 

“Chances are we’ll produce more players,” Ghosal adds.

Not being in the Olympics hurts the sport and the players. Deemed too fast a sport for the television audience to grasp, squash has never been a part of the biggest quadrennial event. Since 2016, there have been efforts to include it into the Games programme but the plan has never seen the light of day. This has impacted visibility.  

“Every squash player wants to be a part of it. Right now, it is under the team that is handling the Los Angeles Olympics for 2028. They are the ones who will make the final call,” Ghosal says. 

For the players, the ripple effects come in terms of the financial support they are granted. Indian squash players have been requesting inclusion in the Government of India’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS). Since the sport does not feature in the Summer Games, the requests have yielded no result.

“We have done well, not just this year but overall. At the World level, Asian level, Commonwealth Games, and even the Asian Games. It would be nice to get the same level of support as others. Having said that, we do get the support from the ministry, but TOPS increases the quantum and the ease of getting access to support,” Ghosal says. 

“But at the end of the day, we treat it as a bonus. Whether or not I’m in the TOPS, I’m still going to put my best foot forward.”

As the battle to get squash to the fore continues, Ghosal shifts his focus to the Asian Games. 

The medal at Cheongju is a shot in the arm for the men’s team before the 2023 Asiad in Hangzhou, China. The victory over Malaysia, the gold medallist from 2018, will be particularly pleasing and help carry the momentum forward.

The win also sees India make the World Team Championships as the top-seeded team from Asia. 

“We’re looking at the Asian Games next. That is the priority. The World Teams is at the end of next year in New Zealand. So, it is a question of winning at the Asian Games. Get the gold there and then look at the next one,” says the former World No. 10. 

For Ghosal, meanwhile, there is more to deal with than just the on-court preparations. In his first interview after the bronze at the Birmingham Games, Ghosal was asked a question perhaps any 35-year-old athlete would expect - is an announcement nearing? 

“I don’t have any thoughts of retiring right now,” he replied swiftly. The prompt refusal, however, does not mean that Ghosal is living in a glass house - he is only playing in one! He is aware that committing to a gruelling year-long tour can take a toll on the most valuable asset - his body. Ghosal’s solution to the problem is simple - workload management. 

“I know I need to take care of my body (and) protect it. The schedule management part is something that my team and me look at very closely. There are certain tournaments that you mark out where you want to do well. At the same time, we have to accept (that) we might set out to play a certain number of events, but if the body is not responding, we need to hold back,” Ghosal says. 

Staying true to the regimen, Ghosal plans to stay away from the court. “I’m playing in New Zealand this week and in Singapore the week after. Then I’m taking a one-month break and not playing in Malaysia and Hong Kong.” 

After the fantastic triumphs he had, Ghosal can indeed put his feet up and savour the season of a lifetime.

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