At a new club and after one 30-minute training session, Saurav Ghosal, India’s highest ranked men’s squash player, will return to competition. If he goes deep into the $540,000 CIB Egyptian Open, Ghosal, the world No. 13, will play on a court with the pyramids of Giza as backdrop.
On October 11, seven months to the day Covid-19 paused his time on the Professional Squash Association (PSA) World Tour following a quarter-final exit in London, Ghosal will start against the winner of Tom Richards (England) and Auguste Dussord (France). He’s got a first round bye so should he win at the New Giza Sporting Club, Ghosal will play the pre-quarter final in what is called the Glass Court in front of the pyramids. This is a platinum event, meaning it is one of the eight on the Tour that draws the best. Also with a first round bye in the women’s draw, 2018 Asian Games bronze medallist Joshna Chinappa is the only other Indian in fray.
Ghosal played in front of Giza last year but this time it is going to feel different. For starters, this trip took six to eight weeks of planning. And seven days to get to Cairo–Ghosal reached on Wednesday– with a stopover in Dubai. “It’s pretty much the only way because you can’t transit,” he says, in a WhatsApp call. “There is one flight every week from Kolkata to Dubai so if I hadn’t left on September 30, I wouldn’t have made it on time.” Having used the air bubble between Indian and UAE, Ghosal used the time in Dubai to get some training done amid repeated tests for Covid-19 including one three days before flying to Cairo.
After isolating, Ghosal was tested again on Thursday; one day after the Open announced that two players have pulled out because they were positive. As per PSA protocols, Ghosal has to stay alone in the players’ hotel. That’s fine, says Ghosal, because wife Diya, sister of squash star Deepika Pallikal Karthik, does not like travelling on the Tour.
Initially suspended till July, PSA World Tour resumed last month with a tournament in Manchester but Ghosal says he skipped it because quarantine rules meant he would have to leave Kolkata almost a month before. “And on return to India, you needed to be in quarantine for 14 days.” Which is why Ghosal, the only Indian man to break into the world top 10 (April 2019), will stay on in Cairo before heading to the $175,000 Qatar Classic beginning in Doha on November 1. “After that, I don’t know.”
On return from the Canary Wharf Classic in England, Ghosal had to stay away from the court for three-and-a-half months, his longest break since turning professional in 2003. The hard lockdown to combat Covid-19 began on March 25, days after he got home and it wasn’t till July 1 that he could hit the courts of the 226-year-old Calcutta Racket Club, his other home.
“Mentally, it felt great but you need some time to get your rhythm back, rhythm in moving, rhythm in moving and hitting, that takes the longest,” he says.
In the time he was forced off court, Ghosal allowed for some comfort food, spent a lot of time initially trawling the internet for information on Covid-19 and like many sportspersons forcibly confined, hosted an eight-episode series that relives India’s major sport achievements by talking to those who made it happen. Ghosal says he canned the remaining two episodes of ‘The Finish Line’ before leaving for Cairo.
He also used the lawn at home for strength work, shuttle runs and skipping. Talking to this paper in April, he had said: “We take years to get in our best shape and less than two months to lose it.” Ahead of the Cairo event, he says: “Physically, you could do a lot of stuff outside the court but your body still needs to get used to squash-specific movements. That is a continuous process.”
“But I am feeling good. I have put in a lot in the bank these past few months. Hopefully, it will pay now,” says the 35-year-old Asian Games bronze medallist (2018) and the Asian men’s singles champion (2019).