Saurav Ghosal woke up Monday with ringing applause and lingering regret still swirling in his head. Playing the last match of his 2019 season – his 15th year after winning the British Juniors crown in 2004 which promised dizzy days ahead – Ghosal was sobering from the highs of having played a spell-binding 85-minute classic against World No. 2 Mohamed ElShorbagy which was the talk of the squash town. And then, losing the titanic battle, 11-5, 9-11, 9-11, 12-10, 10-12, on the softest of backhand volley drops played at 10-9 match-ball in the fifth – which the 33-year-old says will cause him a lot of remorse in the coming days.
ElShorbagy’s return – a backhand flick struck an agonising centimeter or two above the tin. “Had I not played that shot, or not hit it softer and struck it harder instead, he’d have hit into the tin, and maybe we would be talking about the biggest win of my career today!” Ghosal said. An upset over the Egyptian dubbed ‘the Beast’ would’ve validated Ghosal’s hardwork put in over this summer. “It would’ve been huge,” he says, piping up though at all the praise his fighting game has received over the weekend, including his opponent chiming in, “It’s the best match I’ve played against him in our 12 years. I’m really happy I was part of something special.”
Those present at the Weybridge and watching it on the live-stream were on the edge of the seat as the Indian World No 11, mixed the delectable with the dazzling, and matched his celebrated Egyptian opponent known for his unflinching fierce game, shot for shot. In the midst of the brutal rallies, Ghosal in fact impressed with a backhand improvisation where he slided the racquet face dramatically under the dipping ball for the lowest of popping nicks, and left ElShorbagy stranded, finishing with a glorious straight back in the right corner.
Now the former No 1, ElShorbagy can show-off on court. He has a short trickle boast from the back that never stops being cute and an assured crowd-pleaser: between the legs whizzer. But it was Ghosal who in between the ‘his backhand to my backhand’ never-ending slugfests, played the subtle angles that quickly made it to youtube’s gape gallery.
Ghosal had been livid about a couple of ‘No Lets’ at the end of the titanic battle where he won an “unappetizing” first game strewn with the Egyptian’s errors, braved through the next two when rallies got brutal and he was pipped 11-9, found second wind in the fourth, playing his improvisations, and then in the fifth, let fame that comes with beating the Top 5, pass him by. He didn’t say much in the immediate aftermath.
“But when I saw him later, I told him, you better freaking win this tournament after beating me,” he laughs. To add to his Monday wretchedness, Ghosal mock-cribs, ElShorbagy went onto lose the final in 90 minutes, and not even hand him closure.
He did blame “earlier tough rounds” that finished him, for the loss though.
The two go back a long way – including training stints at David Palmer’s. Ghosal remembers a long time back in a Chennai PSA when he beat a young, upcoming ElShorbagy four years his junior. And then the Egyptian’s career took off and he never lost to the Indian again (it’s 0-8 last 8 times) including a 3-0 win at the World Championships in Qatar last week, where the Indian had sensed he was moving and hitting well. But still, it was the sort of calm before a storm, where Saurav Ghosal doesn’t quite remember what his nondescript breakfast was that morning.
The Beast from Alexandria is a relentless fighter (“The thought of winning never crossed my mind, because Mo is the last person you entertain such thoughts against”). Ghosal has learnt to tiptoe around him – i.e. not letting any ball sit up, for Mo to destroy, for ElShorbagy smothers, not for him the touch-play. His achievements are under-rated but Ghosal knows how unforgiving he can get on court.
“What you see is what you get. Some players ply it very dirty on court, but act like saints, not him. He’ll be honest about being selfish in training though he’ll use all the tricks on court. But if he’s playing most people, I’d be in his corner. He’s a really good guy deep down,” Ghosal says. The respect is mutually shared, and ElShorbagy tends to struggle when playing Ghosal, like he does against friends.
Ghosal would match him though on Friday – in not letting go. “Some rallies were so fierce and long in second and third, we were both dead on the glass walls,” Ghosal recalls. Like fish sticking their snouts on an aquarium, the two would return for the 4th game after trading punishing rallies, literally lifting the ball to catch breath.
Ghosal was happy he simply could raise his game level to what the Egyptian was operating at. “At one point of tiredness, you just start enjoying the pain of brutal rallies. You can’t play a match like that whining about how you’re struggling and blah blah. I thought, let me push little and then hard and see how much I can trouble him,” Ghosal said. The crowd would get behind him too. “Most were sad for me when I lost,” he said gleefully. He had modest takeaways on the Monday after: “If I could go toe to toe with ElShorbagy, I surely can push the others next season.”