‘I hadn’t been home in three and half years and it really energised me, gave me a lot of enjoyment back into my squash’
By ALAN THATCHER (Squash Mad Editor)
Men’s singles top seed Paul Coll says his first trip back to New Zealand for three and a half years has “energised” him ahead of the Commonwealth Games.
Coll enjoys a bye in the first round and will meet Malta’s national coach Niall Engerer when he joins the fray tomorrow. Engerer won the all-Malta battle with 18-year-old Kijan Sultana, last night’s flag-bearer for the Mediterranean island, 11-7, 15-13, 9-11, 12-10 in 51 minutes.
Birmingham will feel like a home patch for Kiwi Coll, who trains in the suburbs with his coach Robert Owen.
This week Coll feels refreshed and raring to go after the trip back home following an astonishing season when he became world No.1 for the first time and then lost it two months later as Egyptian rival Ali Farag regained the coveted position.
With no Egyptians in action in the Commonwealth Games, Coll is clear favourite to go one better than his silver medal at Gold Coast in 2018, when he lost to England’s James Willstrop in the final.
Coll, 30, travelled back to New Zealand last month for the first time in three and a half years and was reunited with his parents, brother and friends.
“I missed them so much,” Coll said. “Not to have been home for so long was tough but to see their faces and how happy they were was great.
“Squash New Zealand very kindly changed the date of the National Championships so me and Joelle [King, the women’s singles top seed] could compete. There were lots of fans and the support really meant a lot.
“I hadn’t been home in three and half years and it really energised me, gave me a lot of enjoyment back into my squash.
“We then came back over here for a training camp and had a good camp with Rob. I’m feeling good going into the Games and there’s a lot of energy and excitement floating around.”
Responding to questions about the past season, he continued: “Quite a lot of learning experiences for me this year. We tried not to change too much, we didn’t think about getting there, just tried to win as many tournaments as possible and if you’re winning big events it’s a by-product.
“It’s a bit different if you’re expected to win them and that’s something I’ve had to learn to deal with myself. We prepare for events we want to win, we target our training camps all around those.”
Asked how it felt to finally achieve the number one position, he added: “100% you are the guy to beat so you’re the one everyone is targeting. But I was enjoying it. For me to expect me to get to No1, for my journey to think I could get there was pretty unreal.
“When I got to No.1 I was just loving it. It was something that was huge for me and paid off massively. Of course there’s a target there but if you think about that too much you’ll stop enjoying your squash.
“I just tried to keep that mindset, but I didn’t quite manage it every tournament. Obviously, the World Championships (in Egypt) was tough being top seed. Trying to win that was a different sort of pressures. Without a doubt you’ve got a target on your back, it’s just how you handle it.
“We were just loving it. The whole team was super happy to be on top of the world. We did a bit of work to try and keep it there.”
Asked about the Commonwealth Games, Coll admitted that he was keen to go one better than his silver medal in the Gold Coast.
Coll added: “I’ve been thinking about this for four years. I love being in a team environment. New Zealand is one of the best teams out there.
“I had a great time for the whole two weeks I was back home. I’m not trying to put too much pressure on myself. I’ve been targeting this for the whole season.
“You’ve got to rely on the experiences I’ve had in the last six months to help me this week. The NZ team helps us out massively. It’s such a good team culture we’ve got going on.”
Asked about the work he does with coach Owen, Coll added: “He simplifies it. He explains it very well. He makes it very easy to understand and execute in a match.
“I’ve struggled with some of that in the past and he simplifies everything and makes it very easy to understand what shots to play at what time. I think I have a very good understanding of all the game’s subtleties now. We train before most tournaments for a week.”
Coll’s opponent tomorrow, Niall Engerer, is looking forward to the occasion after beating the young man he coaches, Kijan Sultana.
Engerer said: “Kijan is devoted to the game and has aspirations of turning pro. He is so quick – I feel like I’m in slo-mo and he is on double speed. It’s a joke the way he moves round the court.
“Kijan is a player who is up-and-coming and I’m sure he has plenty of Commonwealth Games ahead of him. It’s not nice to play your countryman, but I‘m just glad we both have the opportunity to play on the showcourt tomorrow.”
On playing the top seed in the second round, he added: “I was glad to get off in four games and have something in the locker against Paul tomorrow. My expectations aren’t much but I’m just going to enjoy the occasion.
“This is squash’s biggest event, so I’m going to savour every moment.”
Sultana is part of a big family group in the Malta squad and he said: “My sister Lijana was playing on the court next to me, my elder sister Colette plays tomorrow, my dad is the team manager, and my mum is watching at home.”
Lijana, just 15, enjoyed a tough battle against Charlotte Knaggs of Trinidad and Tobago, winning 9-11, 11-3, 11-3, 7-11, 12-10.
She wins through to a second round tie against Canada’s Hollie Naughton, who is seeded in the 5/8 group.
Big sister Colette plays Australia’s Jess Turnbull tomorrow.
Pictures courtesy of PSA World Tour