In early April in Cairo, two geometry professors in a glass cage are losing their athletic minds. Saurav Ghosal, lean Pythagoras from Kolkata, and Ali Farag, Egyptian Euclid, are creating a mind-bending, foot-challenging spider web of shots on a squash court.
They are like percussionists caught in a sort of sneakered jugalbandi and one rally goes on for roughly two-and-a-half minutes. This isn’t ping-pong with your seven-year-old brother, this is world-class, high-pitch ball-hammering. On the phone line, even Ghosal sounds a bit dazed.
“Two hundred and fifty shots!” he says. “It was ridiculous.”
At the end of the rally, both men give each other that look—“dude, it’s only practice.” Yes, but they are competitors. Inside their cube, they inhale only intensity.
Oscar Wilde, the poet, is dead else we could have dragged him to the court. He said “consistency is the hallmark of the unimaginative” but it’s the singular aim of the athlete. Repeat, reproduce, replicate. Rafael Nadal used to be a four-limbed Xerox machine of strokes whose ink never ran dry. He would tire you into error, sweat you into submission. Boring? Not if you considered the miles he had run at home, the commitment to every shot, the honed mechanics. It makes amateurs dizzy with awe and we know why we will never get there.
Decades ago, I would sometimes wander down to the Calcutta Racket Club where talent ricocheted off the walls. Ghodas (horses), we would say, with the disdain the young reserve for those with skill they don’t have. But Ghosal is a racehorse, the first Indian male to be world No.10, a feat that deserves sustained applause. Of course, it’s not enough. Top 5, he wants now. Sport is the greediest occupation on the planet.
Ghosal is a man in search of his most reliably expressive self. Ask him about training and he makes misery sound reasonable. A hard week goes on for six days, two-three sessions a day. He likes to use the word “beast” and then starts by talking about a “feeding session”.
Who are these guys?
He keeps going. Squash routine sessions. Gym. Solo sessions (which could be hitting to a particular length for an hour, alone on court). Bike interval sessions. Pairs’ practice. Strength circuit. Hill running in the off-season.
And pressure sessions.
Where coach David Palmer makes him endure something mildly called a “killer routine”. The first time he has this session with Palmer, he says, “David, are you sure you are not missing something because I don’t think it’s possible.”
He’s laughing as he tells this story.
“You have to almost enjoy it to do it every day. At times in training we are killing ourselves. Any normal person watching will think, ‘These people are mad.’ But those sessions are the ones you enjoy the most.”
Because of “ego”. Because “a coach said I couldn’t do this but I am better than this”. So when a coach says, keep the resistance level at 15 and the rpm (revolutions per minute) at over 95 for a bike session, the athlete raises the rpm beyond 100. Just childishly, brilliantly, defiantly proving a point.
But this is the foundation of consistency, the point where you become fast enough for long enough to be at every ball; smart enough to know what to do with it; technically sound enough to keep doing it.
And tough enough because mind, body, circumstance never remain static. “I think it’s impossible,” explains Ghosal, “for anyone to feel physically and mentally at peace every day when they step on court.” Calm is elusive, form is slippery, bodies are disobedient, the referees lousy, the jet lag sucks, the pitch doesn’t suit you, the flu is suffocating you
Something’s always challenging consistency but athletes can’t hide behind any of this because they are trying to turn themselves into excuse-proof machines. So they play on, they deal with it, they find that level, the one below which their pride won’t let them go. So Roger Federer somehow finds his way to 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarter-finals. So Jasprit Bumrah could have a cataract in one eye and a swollen ankle and he would still land the ball on the exact piece of dirt he wants.
Even as we might witness the athlete’s consistency, what we don’t see is the conflict within, the frustration, the refusal to settle for a lower standard, the practise of strokes in the shower, the digging when the rhythm’s off, the journey to this place where they know their game so well that they have learnt how to retrieve it under stress.
Patience helps. Always. Because the game is a living, frustrating, untamed thing. You had timing in the morning but now it’s evening and your machinery has lost a tiny screw and there are conversations breaking out in the brain.
“You tell yourself,” says Ghosal, “it’s not coming right now but hopefully it will come in 20 minutes. And you make sure you are still in with a fighting chance at that point.” Stay in the game, they tell themselves. Stay, stay, stay. What is consistency but a holy, sweaty vow.
Ghosal is the first Indian man to win the British Junior Open, win the Asian Championships, win an Asian Games medal, make the quarters of the World Championships. He’s a consistent path-breaker and it’s a likeable tribe because they don’t have much history to stand on. They dare to write it themselves. They are rebels and pioneers and givers of proof and setters of standards. And they are all this because they are consistently hungry.
And so you can almost see him on that court in Cairo, after that 250-shot rally, after the head shake and deep breath, after the sweaty hand wiped on glass, just saying quietly to himself:
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.