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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Gregory Gaultier interview: The pain of ending my career through injury still hurts

Artyom Lisshttp://www.squashmad.com
Artyom Liss is a journalist with 25 years of experience in TV, Radio and the press; and an amateur squash player who has been trying to generally aim at the front wall for four years - with very mixed results. He is a member of the Tunbridge Wells Squash Club, and currently spends his time between Tunbridge Wells and VIlnius, Lithuania, where he has a work contract.

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‘But I fancy sharing one last moment with the French team before passing the flag to a new generation’
By ARTYOM LISS – Squash Mad Correspondent

Lithuania’s capital Vilnius is a European city that’s just beginning to discover squash. In the local racket sports centre, Seb Arena, there are only four courts; and the newly-created Vilnius Squash League only includes 95 players.

For a city of about half a million people, that’s not a lot. Lithuania is squash’s backwater.

But things are beginning to change. In early November, organisers of the city’s league invited former World Champion and former World Number One Gregory Gaultier to run a few master-classes and play some exhibition games.

Squash Mad’s Artyom Liss caught up with the retired champion before Greg went on court for three games with some of the top players in Lithuania (whom he beat without breaking into too much of a sweat).

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In 2019, Greg limped off court after playing a 74-minute game with a broken knee. He was 36 at the time, and he was still in the world’s top five. The other four were in their mid-20s.

What followed was a string of surgeries, some more successful, others, less so. At some point Greg was told he’d be lucky to walk again, let alone play.

And yet, he returned to the professional game. And when he did, he immediately beat the world’s No.3. Greg described his condition at the time as “less than 100% fitness and a hole in the knee”.

He also said he wanted to carry on until his 40th birthday. Sadly, this was not to be.

I was delighted to talk to him in Vilnius.

AL: I want to take you back to the day when you decided you wanted to retire. Can you tell me about that day? You woke up, and what was it like?

GG: It was a difficult decision because I love the competition, I love training- I still train every day. If I could play for 100 years, I would. But I had difficulties with my knee injury, and to compete at the highest level was really difficult.

I’ve always had high expectations. When you’ve been playing for so many years, and you’re always trying to reach the top spot, always in the semis or the final, and then you have a year off, and the surgeries… Yeah, it was difficult.

So I decided that it was better to let go and accept it and turn the page. The last tournament I played, I was actually OK in my first match, and then I just couldn’t make it the next day.

I just don’t want to go into competitions and then suddenly just go on court and shake hands. It’s not my nature. If I’m competing, I want to have the feeling that I can give it 100%. If I can’t, then I don’t really see the point.

So, after the World Open, I decided that if I couldn’t give myself a chance to give 100% every day, there was just no point.

It was tough. I was a bit depressed, but then I just accepted it and turned the page. Of course, mentally it was not simple, you know. When you’ve been playing for more than 30 years and 20 years of competition … it felt a bit empty.

But then, you need to stay busy. I want to stay involved with squash because I love the sport so much. I was almost born on the squash court. It’s my passion. For me, it was my job, but you approach it in a different way, because you’ve been doing something that you love all your life…. Yeah, that was really nice….

So, anyway, now I just want to stay involved in the sport, do anything that can help people or structures, federations or pro players, to improve their squash. I’m really open to anything.

AL: How’s your knee now?

GG: My knee is… it depends on the days. Some days I have no problem, other days it feels like a bruise, you know.

I’ve got an oedema on the bone, and it can’t just go away like that. It’s been there for years now, and the pain, it can just be unexpected. Sometimes you feel like you have kind of a dead leg, that sort of feeling, and the joint is not moving too well.

But there are also days when I feel well and I can play great squash, so it’s just unpredictable. And that’s exactly what the problem is.

But I’m trying every day to do some work to feel better. I do a lot of mobility work. Even on the days when I’m not going on court, I’m still doing this work, because I want to stay healthy.

AL: Let’s talk a bit about your generation. Only a couple of players who are more or less your age are still in the PSA elite. James Willstrop or, perhaps, Borja Golan come to mind. What’s the main thing that defined your generation?

GG: I would say that it’s the fact that we managed to stay on tour for quite a long time. I played for more than 20 years, and usually most of the players in the past retired in their early 30s or even before that.

I think it’s about the discipline we’ve had over the years. Maybe we had more involvement with the health side, we took better care of the body, the nutrition side helped a lot, the psychology…

There are so many factors that help you to still perform in the older age.

But when I see James playing, for example… I saw his results in the US Open recently, and I was amazed with the way he played and how he moved. For me to watch him still playing like that, I’m happy.

We have known one another since we were 10-12 years old, and 30 years later you still see people like James playing, that’s a nice feeling.

AL: What about the current crop of players? How are they different from your generation?

GG: It’s tough to say. I don’t know how they prepare, I don’t see that. Everybody has their own secrets of preparation. People don’t like to talk too much, they give out so little information because otherwise everybody would copy their approach.

But I believe that the new generation learns a lot from the older guys, somebody like Nick Matthew or James. They can see how disciplined those guys are, how much work they do off court to be fully ready for any competition or any training. And I think that the new generation takes all these elements into their preparation.

AL: Is the Egyptian dominance a good thing or a bad thing for squash?

GG: I think it’s important to have other countries represented, too; squash needs to be spread everywhere, so people can support their local players.

AL: But how do we achieve this? Look at this place, for instance. It’s the capital of a European country, and it only has four squash courts. How do we break through, as a sport?

GG: It’s not simple, you can’t produce a World Champion in a day.

I think the first step is to create an environment where people can learn what squash is all about. Maybe it’s by creating events or building open-air courts.

I was walking in the Cathedral Square here in Vilnius today, and having an event there, in that big space, would be just…. Imagine, you can bring a glass court, and people who don’t actually know the sport will look and say, “Ah, what is this?” And then, maybe, one day they’ll grab a racket and try it.

That’s how you bring people to the sport. And once you have the mass, then you can start looking at producing top players by setting up squash schools, getting young kids to start early, bringing in a coach, creating a programme that can help those youngsters to maybe one day become professionals.

Gregory Gaultier chats to Artyom Liss in Vilnius

AL: What do you make of the new ideas, like the outdoor squash on a steel court, or building an interactive digital front wall?

GG: I think they are good ideas. The outdoor court they have in New York is nice, because people walking by can see the game, and they become curious and then that’s a good way to show what squash is.

The interactive front wall is good for the kids. In my club in Prague, we have it, and the kids love it, especially the little kids. For them, it’s very rewarding.

AL: You never got to play in the Olympics. If you were King of the world, what would you do to take squash into the Olympics? Do we even need to worry about that? Maybe we should just stop chasing it?

GG: Ha… I don’t know. It’s tough. We’ve been trying for so many years, and it doesn’t seem like they want to open their door to us. We need to be on TV more. We need more companies to support us, more money – and maybe if we had more money, then we’d have a better chance of getting into the Olympics.

It’s a tough question, because sometimes we were actually fulfilling all their criteria, but we still didn’t get in.

And then you have the new sports coming in which have nothing to do with the Olympics… Yeah, it’s tough.

At the last Olympics, they brought in new sports, and in the next one they will be out, so what’s the point there?

AL: Let’s go back to your career. You were always one of the most emotional players on the tour. From that perspective, what advice can you give to people like Mostafa Asal? Because there’s a lot of controversy around his behaviour, isn’t there.

GG: Yeah, but you need different characters on the tour, otherwise it would be a bit bland if nobody expressed themselves.

It’s the way he is, you can’t change the person totally. He’s good for squash. OK, maybe a few times he did some extreme things, but who doesn’t do any extreme stuff in their life?

Of course, some people will say bad things, but you can’t be liked by everyone. I think that he is super-talented, he brings a lot to the sport. To be 20 years old and already winning big events is incredible, and it’s important for the tour to have new players and new faces. But, of course, sometimes he could control his emotions better.

But… mmmm… then it’s him who’s the decider for that. You can’t change someone totally. And maybe he doesn’t care what people think (laughs).

AL: Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Did you care what people thought?

GG: Of course, it’s important to show the right things to people, because there are a lot of people watching, many kids. But sometimes when you play and it’s the crucial moment, and your head is boiling…

Sometimes it’s not always simple to control yourself. It’s easy to say when you’re not on court, maybe behind the screen. It’s always easy to criticise people, but they are not there, so…

AL: You’re saying all these things, and I keep thinking back to the game you had with Mohamed ElShorbagy in the 2017 Tournament of Champions. One of the commentators said you’d “hustled” Mohammed and “used all the tricks in the book”.

GG: Some people may think whatever they want. I didn’t do anything wrong. I got injured. I spent the entire night before the match with three physios. My glute was like a brick, I had a massive spasm. And the next day, before the final, I went to bed at 4 in the morning, and I couldn’t even sleep. I was back in the gym at 8 in the morning to try and loosen up my muscles. My physio stayed with me all the time. I couldn’t even go practice.

And then I remember the organisers coming to me at 5 p.m. and asking, “Can you play the final or do we have to organise something else like an exhibition?” And I said, “I don’t even know”.

I… before the match I got something to loosen up my muscles, and I put a lot of heat on them. We worked non-stop with my physio, and I managed to play, which was great.

And then I had to fly to England the weekend after to see another doctor for two days. It wasn’t a pulled muscle, but I had a huge spasm. It was kind of weird, because at some points I could play, and at some points I couldn’t even move properly.

I was mostly playing with my left leg, because it was on my right side.

But the problem with Mohamed there… He should have played more to the front corners or whatever, but he got scared and was kind of passive. And then what could I do? I played; and I also played with the crowd. There’s nothing wrong with that.

AL: You always did that, you always really worked the crowd. What did it give you?

GG: It gave me the support, the adrenaline. It was nice, and I liked it. It’s better than the quiet crowd when there’s no interaction. Having the crowd behind me or even against me, it’s great, whatever, it is, either gives me motivation.

When you’re playing in Egypt, you don’t always have the crowd with you, but I’d rather have the crowd that goes either way, that’s loud and interactive; I’d prefer that to a crowd where there’s nothing happening.

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AL: What’s your proudest moment on tour?

GG: I think it’s when I became World Champion. When I was 23, I had five match balls playing David Palmer, and I think that was my time to get that trophy. And then it slipped out of my hands, and it remained like that for many years.

Ten times I went to the last four, five times I was in the finals, and then eventually I got it.

Maybe it’s because becoming the World Champion meant too much for me. I would be in the final, and I would freeze.

So the best solution was to play without thinking about what’s at stake. It took a lot of mental conditioning work. It was not about squash at all, it was more about all the psychology of the game.

AL: And the lowest point?

GG: My lowest point was my injury, because, huh…. When I got injured, I was 36 years old. The year before, I was world number one, at 35. I was still playing well. I was semi-finalist at the British Open; in San Francisco I had a match ball against Ali Farag, who was world number one at the time. I was still in the top five.

And then this came out of nowhere. I spent one year of my life in rehab, five months on crutches, two surgeries…

Coming back from that was tough. It ruined the end of my career. I had a great career that I was proud of, and I should have played my last three years in the top 10, no problem.

It was difficult to be in rehab all the time. When you’re 36, 37, and some doctors are telling you that with an injury like that you can’t do sports at all any more, it was difficult.

And then I had to go through the second surgery, because the first one was a mess. That gave me a chance to play again. My physio did tremendous work, as did my coaches. I managed to play, and I was very proud of that.

But that was the toughest part of my life. When you’re incapable of doing what you love the most, it is… huh…

I would have preferred to retire after winning an event or doing something great, but I’m just not capable of doing so now.

When you play with a leg that you’re…. I only play with one…. I have two legs, of course, but it’s really only one that…. Well, it’s not the same.

AL: Are you completely retired or will you still you play for France?

GG: I retired from the tour, but I may play one more time for the national team, in the World Teams (in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia between December 7-11). I’m still training now, I want to give the best to my country, they really need me.

For me it’s important to pass the flag to the new generation. It’s just about sharing one last moment for the federation and the coach who really wants me to be there because I’m still playing at a decent level for the team.

Related article: Gregory Gaultier announces his retirement

Pictures courtesy of ARTYOM LISS

 

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