September 2019 | 890 words | 3-minute read
In the beginning, squash was interesting only because it was a racquet sport,” says Saurav Ghosal — an employee of Tata Capital — who hit the headlines in April 2019 when he became the first Indian male squash player to make a triumphant entry into the Top 10 of the Professional Squash Association (PSA) rankings.
A sporty kid, Saurav started out playing badminton in Chennai where his family lived. When he turned 8, the family moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata), where the lack of access to a badminton court pushed him to try playing a new sport. He says, “My dad was already playing squash for recreation at the Calcutta Racquet Club, where he was a member. I started going there to play squash after school every day. I still go there to play whenever I am in Calcutta.”
Gradually, Saurav began to enjoy the sport. He says, “Within a few months of starting to play, I went to the junior nationals held at Doon School, Dehradun. It was my first tournament and I enjoyed the experience, treating it like a holiday in the hills.” Saurav competed at the junior nationals every year, enjoying the competition and the game, but not really pushing himself to the limit.
Home turf again
That situation changed after he appeared for his Class X board exams and moved to Chennai again. Joining the National Academy for Squash in Chennai, he played under the tutelage of the coach there. He says, “It’s really strange, but something fell into place for me while I was there, and I began to seriously consider squash as a career choice. Prior to this, I was quite lazy. I could play the game for hours on end, without actually being serious about it.”
At home, his family offered him complete and unstinting support, trusting his abilities, goals and dreams. “Their support,” he says, “helped me stay grounded when things were great and not feel low when things went bad.”
Saurav stayed at the academy until he turned 18, simultaneously pursuing a degree in Economics and Management from the University of Leeds in the UK. He says, “A lot of what I achieved during those years, both on the national and international stage, was due to their guidance. The academy had very good infrastructure. I also met other players who contributed to the positive environment there.”
Buoyed by his spectacular entrance into the big league, Saurav was ready to make a bigger commitment to the sport. It was a task that would require greater financial resources, and Saurav approached Amar Sinhji, the then HR head of Tata Capital, in 2014, hoping for sponsorship. But a pleasant surprise was in store for him.
Sinhji told him that the company wanted a lifelong association rather than a mere three-year sponsorship. Saurav was invited to join Tata Capital in the capacity of an employee, free to pursue his sporting commitments. "It turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made," he says. "I am very happy with the way things have unfolded since then."
Honing his game
The next step in his training journey was the Pontefract Squash and Leisure Club, at Pontefract, near Leeds. Over the next seven-and-a-half years, Coach Malcolm Willstrop honed and sharpened Saurav’s abilities into a professional player, who was able to take his fledgling steps into the select club of the Top 30 squash players in the world.
While Willstrop continues to train him, Saurav has also signed up with David Palmer, Australian former world No1 champion who is also the head coach at Cornell University, USA. Between them, they put Saurav through the paces, ensuring that he puts in the grunt work that could qualify for glory. It is their coaching and tactical strategising as much as his own relentless hard work that has seen Saurav earn a greater number of victories, rising from a nobody to a player to watch out for.
The shiniest gold
While each achievement has been hard-earned and satisfying, the win that has meant the most to him has been the Asian Games team gold of 2014. It was the first gold win for Team India, following a number of last-minute upsets at this prestigious event. Saurav says, “The individual championships are probably a bigger achievement in terms of squash. But this win will always be special because I had always wanted to win at a big event as part of the Indian team. To win gold at a stage as big as the Asian Games was very gratifying.”
Vying for number one
Having stepped into the Top 10, the dream is to be world numero uno. But first it will mean breaking into the Top 8, the Top 5, and the Top 3 — challenges that will require nerves of steel and fierce effort. He says, “If I don’t drive myself, I will lose out to someone else who is prepared to work harder than me and become better than me.”
But Saurav’s dreams are not for himself alone. He also wants youngsters in India to take up the sport that has meant so much to him. He says, “Back when I started, India was not competing on the world stage. Today we are. Now the next step is for India to win at the world stage.”