It was just another Monday morning last week as Saurav Ghosal, 32, entered the Pontefract Squash Leisure Club in West Yorkshire, England. As he tucked away his phone to get on with the training grind, he was taken aback by the unexpected barrage of messages. It delayed him briefly, but Ghosal wasn’t complaining.
For the first time in his 16-year career, he had made the world top 10. It was right after the team gold at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, that Ghosal—India’s No.1 men’s squash player—had first set his eyes on this milestone. Five years later, he had achieved it.
“It is tough to stay committed. Honestly, you have to love killing yourself in training every day. Eventually, it comes down to how badly you want it and the support of those around you,” Ghosal says on email from Pontefract.
Since that triumph at Incheon, Ghosal has regularly checked in and out of the world top 20. He had honed his skills under coach Malcolm Willstrop and found a training partner in his son and former world No.1 James Willstrop. Weeks on end were spent addressing the demands of the professional circuit, in the hope of catching up with the leading pack.
“The ones I am chasing are there for a reason. The world No.1 is the best because he can play consistently at the highest level, week in, week out. For me, it has taken an unbelievable amount of work to get there. As a person, I have had to stay away from family and loved ones and that is hard,” he says.
In February 2017, Ghosal married Diya Pallikal, whose sister, Dipika, is a former top 10 player herself. “Marriage has brought about a sense of security and stability to my life. I know her since I was 16 and she has been a rock,” Ghosal says.
After dropping to No.30 in April that year, he started working his way up the ladder, and, by the end of 2017, was back in the top 20. “After I crossed 30, I have focused on playing the big events to get into the top bracket of players,” he says.
The Commonwealth Games in April 2018, however, threw a spanner in the works—psychologically, more than anything else—as the third seed was dumped in the second round by Jamaica’s Christopher Binnie, who ranked 65th in the world at the time.
“It was a big event on my calendar and I prepared the best I could. That loss was one of the toughest of my career. I felt like all the work and planning I had put in was for nothing. It was time to re-evaluate how I wanted to move forward,” he recalls.
Ghosal took time off from the game for a month to collect his thoughts. Then, he reached out to David Palmer, a two-time former world champion who works with the current world No.2, the Egyptian Mohamed El Shorbagy.
“I felt like he could add something different on top of what I had already learnt from Malcolm Willstrop—the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle. The work I have done with him over the years has made me more secure with respect to my game, which in turn has helped me compete against the top guys on a more consistent basis,” Ghosal says.
“I think the major difference would be the intensity. Malcolm has taught me how to structure points and David is trying to get me to do that at a higher intensity,” he adds.
The focus then was on the Asian Games in August, from where Ghosal returned with an individual and a team bronze, despite an abductor injury.
“He has been playing against the top guys for a really long time and knows their style of play well. That understanding gives us the edge in team events,” says Harinder Pal Singh Sandhu, one of Ghosal’s teammates during that triumph. “He’s a bundle of energy, and, sometimes, too hyper,” Sandhu says, laughing.
At the end of last year, Ghosal pulled out of the senior nationals, keeping in mind the stress on his body. In January too, he had to withdraw from the CCI International in Mumbai before the quarter-final due to a calf injury. “I dealt with it quite well, focusing on rehab and strengthening work,” he says.
Three weeks before the World Championships in Chicago in February, Ghosal moved to Ithaca in New York state to train under the watchful eye of Palmer, while hitting with El Shorbagy. At the tournament, Ghosal made it to the quarter-final, and, a couple of weeks later, he made the last 8 of the Grasshopper Cup in Zurich as well.
“I think what helped was that we (Ghosal and El Shorbagy) pushed each other every day. That tournament (the World Championships) was the defining moment in my journey to the top 10. It was disappointing that neither of us could win the whole thing, but the work we put in is in the bank and hopefully I will win something big soon. I have been training every day so that I can be better tomorrow,” Ghosal says.
The key to Ghosal’s sporting longevity is his commitment to meticulous organization and diligent planning, which is evident even in the way he carries himself off the court.
“His basic game is excellent and he’s incredibly disciplined, which makes his stroke play even more lethal. Besides, that tenacity and perseverance has taken him where he is today,” says Siddharth Suchde, who played on the circuit alongside him till 2012. Ghosal believes he is way calmer these days. Suchde agrees, while observing that Ghosal’s flashy and flamboyant persona as a junior has made way for real solidity.
“It’s not easy to be motivated and continue to put in high performances over such a long duration. I trained with him for over 15 years and I am glad I don’t have to any more. My body still hurts thinking about it,” Suchde says.
The celebrations, Ghosal says, are on hold until he wins a tournament. That would explain why, after a quick call to his grandparents, he put the moment behind him and geared up for another gruelling session on court.