Commonwealth Games 2018: Brimming with self-belief, Saurav Ghosal hopes to make Gold Coast sojourn special
It was the summer of 2014. More than a billion hopes rested on the shoulders of Saurav Ghosal. Indian fans watched with bated breath as the Kolkata-born squash ace battled it out with England’s Peter Barker at the Scotstoun Sports Campus in Glasgow.
After losing the first game, the India No. 1, seeded fourth, came back to level matters. Much to the dismay of the Indians, the next two games went in favour of the third seeded Englishman. Needless to say, the 11-5, 6-11, 11-5, 11-6 result in the bronze medal play-off sent a dagger through the heart of Ghosal, and his fans as well.
Four years later, the 31-year-old embarks on a journey to complete that unfinished job at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. The hunger for a medal still remains the same, the determination to experience the euphoria of that priceless moment is still there.
There is, however, a lot of difference between the Ghosal, who had to be content with the fourth-place finish that July evening and the one, who is looking forward to making his Australia sojourn special.
In these four years since the Glasgow heartbreak, the country’s best player has not only matured, but he has found what was earlier missing -- a profound enjoyment for his profession. He has learnt to throw the pressure out and free himself from the extra baggage that was weighing him down.
The constant worrying about the outcome clouded his thought process, restricting him from becoming the player he could be. In the last 6-9 months, he has a made a mental switch, focussing more on the work at hand, rather than beating himself up for an unfavourable result.
The approach, has, in turn, given him wings to fly. He believes in himself more, he exudes confidence a lot more on the court these days. There simply could not have been a better time for Ghosal to try and get that elusive Commonwealth Games singles medal for India.
“Last time, when I went to Glasgow, I was seeded fourth,” says Ghosal in an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda.
“I had a feeling that if I played well, I could get to the quarter-finals or the semi-finals, and then I had to play out of my skin to beat the top guys.
“This time the feeling is definitely different. My squash has matured enough and I have proven that to myself over the last 6-9 months. I feel like if I can produce the level that I am capable of producing, then I am in a good space to challenge no matter whoever I am playing. That confidence is there, that belief is there in my head, which has changed from what it was four years back.”
That Ghosal has flipped a switch is being reflected in his performances of late. Since being crowned the national champion for a historic 12th time in August, the Arjuna awardee has gone on a tear. He won two PSA titles, finished as the runner-up in one and reached the semi-finals of another. His scintillating run has enabled him to break into the top 15 for the first time in his career and he is now comfortably perched at 14th in the world.
The road to self-discovery
But the road to discovering his best self on the court hasn’t been easy. Ghosal had to endure pain and continued breaks in his training, that pushed him to take a vital step. He sought help from the Abhinav Bindra – Targeting Performance Centre, that was established by the 2008 Olympic gold medallist with an aim of helping the elite athletes find their peak level.
It was at that Chandigarh centre in July that Ghosal found the answer to his ordeal as well as the man, who weaved magic.
“In the preceding 12-18 months, I was having a lot of problems with my body, which I hadn’t had before -- small niggles coming here and there in my ankles, legs etc. I was putting breaks in my training,” Ghosal recounts.
“One thing that has helped a lot is that I went to the Abhinav Bindra Performance-Targeting Centre at Chandigarh in July. The main doctor there, Dr. Digpal Ranawat, worked a lot on my body. I try to go back there every 6-8 weeks in Chandigarh or Delhi or Bangalore, depending on where Dr. Ranawat is.”
The trust in Dr. Ranawat has taken away half the burden that used to be on his shoulders. He has finally come to terms that he cannot flourish under pressure. So, the only way he can excel is if he eliminates that pressure.
“Now I have confidence that my body can stand up to the pressure of brutal squash that I have to play. I think also I mentally kind of switched on where I told myself, ‘There’s no point in thinking whether I am going to win or lose or put unnecessary pressure on myself. I am not one of those guys who plays well when I put too much pressure on myself. I play well when I am enjoying it.’
“That mental switch helped a lot, where I was enjoying myself both in training and in matches. I have kind of isolated the training from the actual tournament."
Higher seeding doesn't guarantee easy path
Despite his voice oozing confidence, Ghosal has kept himself firmly grounded. He may currently be in the best phase of his career, but he knows it well enough that he cannot afford to be complacent.
He is seeded third at the Gold Coast Games, by dint of a top-15 place. Only the two-time champion Nick Matthew and Paul Coll are seeded higher than him.
Even if his seeding gives him a bit of leverage in the early rounds, Ghosal was quick to emphasize on the quality of players on the Tour.
“At the end of the day, to win the whole thing, you have to beat everyone,” the brutally honest squash champion says.
“By that logic, it doesn’t mean that much of a difference to me, to be honest. But, obviously, it kind of gives you, maybe, a slightly better route. But, right now, the Tour is so compact in terms of the quality of players that you just have to focus on every match and make sure that you do what you are supposed to do in terms of executing your plans.
“I am happy to be seeded third. It’s a confirmation of the year that I have had over the last 6-9 months. But I am focussing on playing well, enjoying myself on court, expressing myself the way I want to. Hopefully, if I can do that, I have a shot at doing something special.”
Dealing with Karargui's exit
The squash brigade had assembled in Chennai on March 19 for their final preparations before leaving on Saturday morning, but without one principal figure. The foreign coach, Achraf El Karargui had severed his ties with the Squash Rackets Federation of India (SRFI) just a few weeks before the Games due to the irreconcilable differences between the two.
It was definitely a huge blow for the players ahead of such a high-profile event, especially with Joshna Chinappa and Dipika Pallikal massively benefitting under the Alexandria-based coach’s tutelage.
No matter how much distressing the entire episode has been, the only way forward is to put it behind. Acknowledging the fact that the Egyptian did a commendable job, Ghosal made a very pragmatic statement when he said that the Games come once every four years and it is imperative that the squad puts their best foot forward.
“It’s obviously sad what happened 3-4 weeks before such a big event. It’s obviously not a great timing. I don’t know what exactly transpired. He did a very good job over the last one year-and-a-half. All the players, who worked with him, are thankful to him for that.
“I think the girls worked with him the most and they have been the most affected. But both of them are strong enough to deal with it and play really well at the Commonwealth Games.
“It’s not ideal but we have to now put it behind us. The CWG comes once in four years and it’s a massive honour to play for India. We are preparing the best we can. That is what is in our control.”
Doubles gold can be repeated
Pallikal and Chinappa created history in Glasgow when they teamed up to deliver India’s first squash medal and that too, nothing less than a gold in women’s doubles. The two girls brought squash to everybody’s attention through their spectacular feat as they accounted for the likes of Nicol David-Low Wee Wern and top seeds Laura Massaro-Jenny Duncalf.
It was a moment that was to be engraved in the minds of India’s sports lovers forever.
Thus, this time too, there’s no doubt that the expectations will be sky-high from this pair. Admitting that the Indian duo is the most superior team technical skill-wise, Saurav opined they are the front-runners for a medal, while analysing India’s chances.
“The girls are seeded eighth and ninth in singles. They have to win some big matches to get medals. They are extremely talented and they are working hard. They are more than capable of producing the squash that is expected from them. Vikram (Malhotra) and Harry (Harinderpal Sandhu) are capable of producing surprising results.
“In doubles, the two girls are obviously the front-runners. They are the defending champions and I am sure they will want to repeat that feat. They are seeded third and if they can put things together in that week, they will be hard to beat.
“Squash-wise and technical skill wise, they are probably the best pair out there.
“In the mixed doubles, both the teams are strong. Harry and Joshna are strong, Dipika and me are strong as well.
“It’s a question of putting together a good week, executing the plans well. It’s a question of taking one match at a time, staying focussed and remaining clinical,” signed off Ghosal, remaining thoroughly optimistic, yet extremely realistic at the same time.