Normal people read in their spare time, athletes practise masochism. The entire time I am on the phone with squash player Saurav Ghosal, he’s semi-torturing his back with a roller-massage-type thing. Sometimes he will do it for two hours and his peers tease him about it, but he’s the athlete at 35, the age of minor mutinies, and his explanation for his discipline is a thing of beauty.
“I do it so that my body doesn’t feel sore, otherwise it won’t fire, which means I get to the ball a split-second later, and that means I have less options, and that matters against the best players in the world.”
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Rollers evidently work. When we spoke earlier this month, Ghosal was in Glasgow, where he won the mixed doubles title at the World Doubles Championships with Dipika Pallikal. After he finished, he went to see the athlete’s best pal. The physio. Other times he reaches for ice, which to a seasoned athlete is the equivalent of a cigarillo for the Man With No Name. Always close by and burning.
Ice packs. Ice baths. Ice patches. Tiger Woods, a little more mauled by time and trauma at 46, explained it recently as “basically freezing myself to death”. Ice reduces soreness and increases healing for bodies that have run too many miles and are still chasing. The best player Ghosal can be is still out there somewhere.
Sport is studded with over-30 athletes, from Virat Kohli to Petra Kvitová, and they are often fascinating because they are vulnerable, dented, smart, patient and repositories of so much learning. I remember a Tour de France rider telling me he was as adept at bandaging wounds as his wife, a nurse, because he had so much experience in falls.
Once these athletes were young but it was a lovely, if irrelevant, while ago. The 20-year-old athlete is a dreamer, he’s pals with immortality, he can eat anything and perform, he runs five hours and he’s OK the next day, he plays a game ferociously but doesn’t really know its innards. “Football is life,” shouts Dani Rojas in Ted Lasso. Yeah kid, you can hear older athletes say, wait till you are 30-plus and you can barely pinpoint a part that doesn’t ache.
The 20-year-old athlete is who Ghosal, the 17th best squash player on the planet, used to be once. Twenty and 35 is what I have called him to speak about, the boy he was and the man he is and how his body works now and his art has expanded and his attitude has adjusted and why victory and defeat have a different taste.
Twenty was when he thought about publicity and if people would recognise him, but at 35 he has no “mindspace” for that triviality. Twenty was when defeat was met with a little “petulance” but at 35, like many others his age, there’s an inner Plato in him. All stings are philosophically managed.
“I am more mindful,” he says, “of why I have lost or won, rather than focusing on the fact I have won or lost. Even when I win I am looking into why I won and what to do better to win better. I am more introspective and more investigative. I wish I was like this when I was 20. I used to lose my shit with people close to me and vent on them.”
Twenty was when his engine started with a push of a button. At 35, he’s hardly an Ambassador on a winter day requiring a crank start, but he needs a push.
“The glaring difference is how long it takes to get the body going,” he says. “Earlier, after five minutes of warm-up I could get on court and fly. Now after five minutes I can barely move. Getting the body going takes longer.” Glutes have to be activated. Stretches must be dynamic. Even the vocabulary has changed since he was 20.
As they get older, the athlete is often preoccupied with detail, devoted to long warm-ups, flexible about adapting and discrete about what to eat and when to eat. This is sport as a different scrap, where one ingredient lost is compensated for by another.
Ghosal is still fast but he is also smarter. At 20 the game can feel like Latin, at 35 he can read it. He’s a student of squash but a professor in himself. “I know what I can do effectively. I have a lot more clarity. At the top it’s about executing a plan and if you understand yourself it makes it easier to execute certain strategies. I feel more confident against a world No.1 than when I was 20. Then I didn’t believe I could win, now I genuinely believe if I execute then I can.”
Take one story. Late last year he wins the Malaysian Open but his body feels like he has been through a back-alley brawl. But soon after he’s at the Asian Championships, India are 1-1 with Pakistan and he’s down two games in his match.
“At 20, I definitely would have lost it. I wasn’t smart enough. I didn’t know how to adapt. I would have panicked. Now I know different ways to play. I won the match 3-2 by manoeuvring my way through with my squash. My physicality was absent, I couldn’t use my speed, so I created spaces in different ways. I used the height of the wall more to give myself more time.”
If we are many people in one, then athletes eventually are many players in one. An after-injury version, a weight-loss model, a post-slump make. They are changed by a new coach, transformed by fame, reshaped by experience, sandpapered by age. Twenty is electric but 35 has its own charm. Ghosal is on the road to better, armed with insight and method and always discipline.
He very rarely drinks alcohol but he’s always partial to ice.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold. Twitter: @rohitdbrijnath