Friday, December 1, 2023

Exclusive Interview with Jonathan Kemp: Following in the footsteps of squash legend Geoff Hunt in Qatar

Learning from the great Aussie champion helps Kemp Aspire to great things for the game in Qatar
INTERVIEW BY RJ MITCHELL (Squash Mad Special Correspondent)

JONATHAN KEMP has admitted he is enjoying walking in the footsteps of a legend in his role as Head Squash Coach at the iconic Aspire Academy in Qatar where he is also masterminding the search to find and then produce the Middle East’s first great champion.

The Englishman followed on from Australia’s former World No.4 Stewart Boswell when he left to become Australia’s National coach in early 2020.

But it is the influence and standards of the immortal Geoff Hunt, who was at the apex of Aspire’s coaching structure between 2005 and 2013 and drew up the Academy’s renowned squash programme, that Kemp feels keenest.

Lucky enough to spend regular quality time with the game’s first professional world champion and eight-time British Open winner, Kemp has been able to add the knowledge he brought with him from England Squash to Hunt’s legacy as he seeks to develop a process and structure of his own making.

Yet the man once dubbed the ‘English Shabana,’ in comparison to his dexterous left-handed flair -play which evoked recall of the great Egyptian four-time World Champion Amr Shabana, has no doubt of the debt he owes his Aussie predecessors in setting up the Aspire Academy with a blueprint which he believes can produce a top-10 player within 18 months.

Kemp said: “I got a chance to spend time with Geoff and it was an absolute privilege. He was still helping Abdulla (Mohd Al Tamimi) when he travelled with him but was not directly involved in the programme but Geoff is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet.

Tapping in to the knowledge of legends like Geoff Hunt (right) and Jonah Barrington has helped Jonathan Kemp set his sights high for squash in Qatar

“For me it was fantastic to be able to tap into all that knowledge and history and of course Geoff set the programme up and coming into that environment and seeing the things Geoff had done, plus with him still popping in from time to time I was able to speak with him and absorb and learn, and his work with Abdulla was amazing.

“When you think of squash for me you think of Geoff and Jonah Barrington both as great players and also as ground-breaking coaches who set the standard. So, to get the opportunity to learn and work with Geoff was fantastic and then also to continue all that with Stewart Boswell, who was himself developed by Geoff, has been a tremendous opportunity for me.

“Really it was the best thing I could do as a coach in terms of my development and coming from the England Squash set-up it has been very different.

“Not that either one way is better or worse but to be exposed to both of them allows you to see areas where the system I have come from could have been improved but also where the Australian system could be developed.

“Obviously there are pluses and minuses to both systems but for me as a coach, and in terms of my development, to have had exposure to both of them has been great and made me more open to learning new things.

“For a start the two systems are not really compatible and we had a few frank discussions about how we thought things should work and that was a huge learning curve that has made me a better coach as a result.

Kemp had been immersed in his role as Head Coach at Ipswich Sports Club when the opportunity, one may say, he had been ‘aspiring’ to, arose and it is a foreign posting that this Englishman abroad clearly relishes: “I was in Ipswich at the time at Ipswich Sports Club, which is a lovely club with great people and I was loving my time there, then my wife Jackie saw the job advertised and I came over for an interview and the rest is history as they say.

“Aspire is a huge sports academy but in the squash programme we have 13 juniors and two full-time professionals in Abdulla Mohd Al Tamimi and Syed Azlan Amjad.

“Abdulla moves between Qatar and the US and he mainly works with Rod Martin, who is New York based and also at most of his tournaments, and I fill in when Rod is not around whereas with Azlan, as we call him, I am his main coach.

“But Aspire is unlike anything you have ever seen. It is the best of everything and better than 99% of national centres and without doubt one of the very best facilities in the world.

Kemp is setting some ambitious targets for Abdulla Al Tamimi to Aspire to

“Gyms, rehab, sports science physiology, psychology, nutrition – it is all covered. You name it they have it, and they attract the very best people and it’s an amazing place to be.

“Squash is still relatively small in Qatar and we work with the Qatar Squash Federation, and they do most of the early year development work from around six years-old through to 12 years-old and then our remit is 12 to 18-year-olds.

“The Federation will nominate players they would like us to take on and we select the best and develop them for these key years.

“Obviously we have some of these younger boys coming through and there are a couple with very good potential and we are hopeful we can create some top squash players and really build momentum at Aspire in this respect.

“But our main focus is the Asian Games which has unfortunately been postponed for this year and everything was geared to getting the guys ready for that. Now in the longer term the Asian Games in 2030 are scheduled for Qatar and that is the big target to get medals there.”

Jonathan Kemp won the Kent Open in his final PSA tournament

But there are two other great drivers behind Kemp’s work in the desert state as he revealed: “We are trying to ultimately to create a squash champion from the Middle East region and ultimately we want Abdulla to be in the top 10 – and we know he has a lot of work to do in this respect.

“He is motivated and working hard and with Rod in his corner every day driving him on hopefully that will make the difference. But he has been pretty unlucky with injuries over the years with a couple of surgeries and some long lay-offs that have really set him back.

“Abdulla has won a couple of tournaments recently, is back inside the top 50 (current ranking is 41), and is regaining form with his ranking climbing and the good thing with Abdulla is it doesn’t take him long to get fit but what we need to do is build him into a more resilient machine that won’t break down.

“So that is a long-term plan and if Abdulla can stick with it then in maybe 18 months or so he can be top 10.”

Abdulla Al Tamimi celebrates his win in Qatar

(Report courtesy of PSA World Tour)

World No.48 Abdulla Mohd Al Tamimi secured his second title of the 2021-2022 season with a win on home soil at the QSF 3, as he beat Mexico’s Leonel Cardenas in the final at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex in Doha, Qatar.

The Qatari No.1 has struggled with injuries this season, seeing his ranking drop out of the world’s top 50 at one point, but following a win at the Life Time Atlanta Open, and making it to the second round of the CIB PSA World Championships Cairo, he came back to his home nation in some good form.

Al Tamimi came into the tournament as the No.3 seed, and after receiving a bye through to the second round, he came up against England’s Charlie Lee. The Qatari found himself 2-1 down, but fought back to win in five, winning both of the last two games 11-5, to advance through to the quarter finals of the competition.

In the last eight, the World No.48 overcame Emyr Evans in four games, winning the first two games, before having to regroup after the Welshman took the third. He then got the better of Argentina’s Leandro Romiglio, who had downed three seeded players en route to the last four, in straight games.

Al Tamimi then took on Leonel Cardenas, the World No.37, in the final, and the Qatari was in complete control throughout the match. Playing in front of his home crowd, he won the first two games comfortably. Although the Mexican tried to fight back, it was Al Tamimi that took the victory, to claim his second title this season, and first in from of his adoring home crowd since 2017.

Results: QSF 3 Final
[3] Abdulla Mohd Al Tamimi (QAT) bt [2] Leonel Cardenas (MEX) 3-0: 11-2, 11-6, 11-9 (28m)

Abdulla Al Tamimi (left) in action against Mexico’s Leonel Cardenas in the final of the QSF3 Series final in Doha

Pictures courtesy of PSA World Tour and Aspire Academy 


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