Updated: February 8, 2018 8:07:33 am
As the new squash rankings came up last week, Saurav Ghosal became the first Indian man to break into the top 15. It was a first for the 31-year-old who has found consistency in beating opponents ranked higher than his 14th spot. The biggest scalps came at the St. George’s Hill Classic in October, where he beat Egyptian duo Mohamed Abouelghar (ninth) and Marwan Elshorbagy (fourth).
The performances though have come at an opportune moment in the career of India’s greatest men’s singles player, as the veteran now prepares for another first — a medal at the Commonwealth Games.
Since sport is not as an event at the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games are the two big multi-discipline extravaganzas squash features in. But it is at the April event at Gold Coast in Australia that is more prestigious among the two based on the tougher playing field. There are the strong contingents from Australia, New Zealand, and Asian giants Hong Kong and Malaysia. Then there is a formidable England squad that includes the likes of two-time World Champion Nick Matthew and former world no. 1 James Willstrop.
Ghosal has won four medals at the Asian Games, two bronze at the 2010 edition and a silver in the singles and gold at the team events at Incheon 2014. But at the CWG, the closest he’s come to a medal was losing in the bronze-medal match at Glasgow.
His new world rank though makes him the third highest among the possible CWG field — behind only Matthew and Kiwi Paul Coll. But Ghosal doesn’t look much into the seeding process. “Being higher ranked is a good thing, but the men’s field is just too strong,” he says.
“Even if I’m a higher seed, I have to beat someone like Matthew, Wilstrop, Coll in the semis to go to the finals to win the medal, or even in the bronze medal playoff.”
Instead, what the record 12-time national champion has focused on more is his recent run of form, which began to accelerate back in July. The Kolkata-lad struggled with injuries in the first half of 2017, as he was forced to skip tournaments. “I’d do a week of hard training, and then the body would start to hurt. So then I’d have to stop myself and reduce the training intensity,” he recalls. “That stop-start affected the way I played and the results were not as good as I wanted them to be and that started affecting me mentally.”
In his attempt to find a cure, he sought guidance from Abhinav Bindra’s high-performance centre in Chandigarh. There, he was put through sessions of dry-needling into key trigger points and cupping therapy to release pressure on the muscles. There was even work done to improve the right-hander’s body balance ratio — which dropped from 5.6 percent on his right side to 4.2 percent in a few days.
“The results started improving and I was in a better place mentally,” he says. “Before, if I lost a match, I’d feel like the world was crashing down on me. Now if I lose, yes I am sad, but I’m still happy that my body is without pain.”
The change in mentality made a difference to his results. Before his surprising run to the semi-finals at the St George’s Hill Classic, where he had started as a qualifier, Ghosal reached the final of the Macau Open, and later won the $50,000 CCI International in November. It’s given him confidence in his game, and brought him into contention for winning a medal at the CWG.
“The last time I went there, I was trying to scrape through to get a bronze. But this time, realistically, I can win it,” he says. “I’ve shown in terms of performance that I have the pedigree to do it, and with the squash I’ve been playing in the last six months, I have a shot of winning the whole thing.”
There’s also been a change in his scheduling, as he has allowed himself breaks in between each tournament. In fact, he planned to compete in just four events before travelling to Australia for the quadrennial event. One of those tournaments is the Indian Squash Open in Mumbai, for which he is the top seed. “I’m not playing too many events at a stretch to keep the body fresh and give myself time to prepare and train. That way I won’t reach April without a good training block,” he says.
At his age, there may be a possibility that this will be the last cycle for him. But he’s not committing to it. “Ideally, I’d want to play till 2022,” he adds. In April, he’ll be competing at his third CWG, but the first at which he is a major contender.
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