Saurav Ghosal, Professional squash player from India
Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur
Squash wasn’t really a popular sport when Saurav Ghosal started playing it in the 90s, while in school. Back then, his idol, like many Indians, was Sachin Tendulkar, and what he took away from the cricketer’s career was his single-minded obsession with perfection. It’s a game Ghosal, now 36, still plays with himself—of becoming a better player every day. Recently, Ghosal became the first Indian to win an individual medal in the Commonwealth Games, when he beat his dear friend and nemesis James Willstrop to take the bronze. In this interview, he breaks down the secret to his longevity and how he built up to this sporting history over a two-decade career. Edited excerpts:
Q. You started playing squash in school. But when did you realise you could take it up as a profession?
A. I think there were a couple of inflexion points in my junior career, which pushed me towards believing that this was possibly something that I could do for a good part of my life and make it a so-called job. When I was 13, I had to pick between cricket and squash. I was going to class 9 and with academics, playing two sports seriously was getting hard. I chose squash at the time because I felt that it was something that made me the happiest.
Then I started getting big results when I turned 15-16, and on the world stage as well, I started winning tournaments on the European circuit; I won the British juniors at 17. All those things ushered me into playing professionally and it was like a natural progression into the senior ranks and the professional world of sports. But I think the most defining feature and reason for all this were that I enjoyed myself immensely whilst I was on the squash court.
I think even today, now that I'm 36, looking back all these years, I am so privileged and almost honoured to be able to do what I've done for all these years. The key element was the joy of being able to compete at the biggest stages in the world and the high that you get from doing that is probably something that I can never replicate, with anything else in my life and that's what pushed me towards becoming a professional player. Q. Back in the day, squash wasn't a popular sport in India. Who were your mentors and idols back then?
I think in terms of sporting idols, like most Indians, I grew up watching Sachin [Tendulkar]. He was a huge sporting hero to me, and what he did was unbelievable. Then there was Egyptian squash player Amr Shabana, who is a former four-time world champion and a former world number one.
He is probably someone I have learnt from a lot, watching him play and understanding what to do on the court and how to tackle different players. I had the opportunity to play with him, and it was one of the most surreal experiences for me as a player.
In my close circle when I was growing up, I would say my dad, and he still is a very big part of my close team, he's the one who pushed me through a lot of ups and downs. It’s also reassuring to understand, and have that perspective, that it is one match and one day, the most important thing is for us to know and believe that we live to fight another day. I think that's been the biggest takeaway for me from all these years of playing at the top levels. Q. What were the challenges of playing a lesser-known sport and how did you overcome them?
I think the biggest obstacle that probably goes under the radar is the level of expectation from everyone around you. When I was growing up, we didn't have anyone to look up to as a top-level squash player from India. So everyone's outlook on having a player from India was that we'll go play in this tournament, but realistically we're just going to make up the number.
To change that mindset—mostly internally for me to believe that I can push the envelope and win on the world stage, starting with the juniors and then going on to the seniors—was hard. At every stage, I've had to re-evaluate the goals that I've had. When I was 18-19 years old my goal was to make it to the top 30 in the world; I made it. Then the goal shifted to the top 20, then the top 10. Today, it is top 5 and winning some of the biggest events in the world.
Ritwik Bhattacharya, a professional squash player from India, sent me a message after I won the bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games, saying "You carried through, and you made this unachievable, impossible dream of an Indian winning an individual medal at the Commonwealth games [for squash] come true. Because 20 years back, people would have laughed at your face, if you said that you were going to win an individual Commonwealth [Games] medal." So I think that was the biggest challenge, to constantly not be satisfied with where I'm at, constantly tell myself that there is more that I can do, and more that I can achieve. That it is possible...it's not outlandish and can happen. Q. You were the first junior world No 1 from India. Tell us a bit about how you bridged the senior-junior gap. It's somewhere most young athletes falter, so what would be your advice for them?
One of the major differences playing junior sport and senior sport is that in the juniors you end up travelling with a lot of your friends, you are together a lot as a team and have that comfortable atmosphere around you all the time. Parents travel with you, which kind of helps you a lot. Also in the juniors, you probably have a certain percentage of the players who are super serious about the sport, while a majority of them are playing it being unsure whether they are going to make it or not. When you go in the seniors, everyone is fighting for their livelihood, you are travelling the world, most of the time alone.
I say this to a lot of juniors in India, and upcoming players as well, that being a top professional player, is not just about how good a squash player you are. It is important, and it is the core, but everything around that is almost equally important. How well you eat, how you take care of your body, how disciplined you are on the days when no one is watching you in training, because 80-90 percent of your wins are formed in training, what you do on match day is probably 10-20 percent only. All those things put together, make a top professional player.
My advice would be, you have to look into every aspect of your life, and see whether that aspect is adding value towards achieving your dream of becoming a top player in the world, no matter which sport you are in. It's a single-minded obsession, you have to be obsessed with the goals that you have because only then will you be able to rise to the top. Q. You've played professionally for nearly two decades. How do you keep the hunger going?
I think there are two things. One is I haven't achieved everything that I set out to achieve. I'm not a world champion yet in the individuals, I have also not won the Commonwealth Gold and the Asian Games gold in the individual event yet. So I have a lot more goals that are pending for my career.
The other thing, which is more important to me, is that I somehow have this urge or drive to be a better player every single day I get onto a squash court. It might be a small, incremental improvement, but I think that excites me—that today I go into training and I can be a better version of myself than what I was yesterday. All the big goals are great, but, daily, go to training, and do some very hard sessions—you need to have small things that excite you. For me, being a better player today than I was yesterday and improving in whatever little way that I can today is the one thing that excites me a lot.
Having said that, we do go through peaks and troughs, there are times when we love the sport and there are times when we don't feel so happy about it. You feel like you want to get away, and it’s perfectly normal. But I think it’s important to have a perspective that today, things might not be going as per plan, but at least you have put in 100 percent effort and then that tide is going to turn sooner rather than later. Q. An international athlete has to go through good and bad days. What have been some of the setbacks for you and how does one turn around from setbacks?
Everyone grapples with setbacks. But one statement that Malcolm Willstrop, my former coach who unfortunately passed away last year, has stayed with me. He said, “You've lost today, I know you're feeling terrible about yourself, which is understandable. But the only way for you to make this right, and to feel better about yourself, is to get back to work and make sure that you put in the effort."
Sport is very unforgiving. One day, it’s very objective—some day you win and you are on the biggest high and the next day you lose and you're on the biggest low. There's no middle ground. It's important to have balance when you win or lose. Remember, when you do lose, you have the opportunity to make things right by putting the work in; and when you do win, you still have the opportunity to get even better.
Q. Is a champion mindset something you are born with or is it something you can develop over time?
I think the mindset isn't something that you're born with, it’s something that can be developed over time. There are lots of examples in world sports where you see that. You look at the best athletes in the world right now, for instance [Lionel] Messi for football who is an absolute natural, but then you have Cristiano Ronaldo who is made it to where he's at and is probably on a par with Messi due to sheer hard work. In tennis, you have Roger Federer, who has unfortunately retired now, who is again a natural, and then you have Rafael Nadal and even Novak Djokovic to a great extent, who have made what they've made because they work so hard at it. So it's [champion mindset] something that can be developed. It's born out of a single mind of obsession, of being the best you can be.Q. What would you say are your career's big milestones?
I'll pick two. The first one was the 2014 Asian Games team gold medal, I won the match 11-9. It was the first time India won a team title, it was something very dear to me. I had lost the gold medal in the individuals five days earlier and had settled for a silver. But for me to come back, and produce a performance like that, in the team final is something that I was very proud of.
Then this year, at the Commonwealth games, for me to win the bronze medal, in the individuals against someone like James Willstrop, and produce one of my best performances, I'm always going to be extremely proud of that. Even in my best cause visualisation, it was a 3-1, but to come out and win 3-0, playing the way I did, I couldn't be happier about it. Q. What are some lessons that you've learnt as an international athlete?
It is very important to win, and we all want to win. But winning the right way is important as well since it’s a window into your personality. One of my sporting heroes Amr Shabana once told me, "When you're playing the game, it’s a laboratory experiment of life because you're putting yourself in the deep end, but there are certain variables that are controllable in this case, and the way someone reacts in these situations is a good indicator of how that person will react to life in general. If you fail to come through as a proper, genuine person on the sporting field, the chances are that you're going to let people down in life as well." So that's something that has stayed with me.
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