Harinder Pal Sandhu reflects on a meteoric year for Indian squash, and the emotions of beating his best friend Saurav Ghosal to become national champion
What a magnificent year 2014 was for Indian squash. The growth of the game was illustrated by gold medals in the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and Asian Beach Games, and the successful launch of the Indian Pro Circuit.
Harinder Pal Sandhu finally emerged from the shadow of national number one Saurav Ghosal to land his first national championship, ending Saurav’s seven-year grip on the title.
Squash Mad caught up with Harinder on his return from Phuket, Thailand, where he claimed gold in the Asian Beach Games.
11 Points With Harinder Pal Singh Sandhu
1: Harinder, 2014 was certainly a magnificent year for squash in India.
A: Year 2014 is the result of all the hard work each and everyone of us has done in the last couple of years. All our team members knew that we had to perform at the best of our capabilities and get the medal back home.
It all started with the continuous camps being held in Chennai at the Indian Squash Academy for Doubles and the results were shown when the girls won the Gold Medal in Glasgow.
We had to go through mixed emotions at the Asian Games where Saurav came just an inch close to an individual Gold Medal but had to settle for a Silver instead. He thoroughly deserved Gold that day.
Winning Gold in the team event at the Asian Games was a dream of mine and Saurav’s. During training it was always at the back of my mind that I have to push extremely hard all the time to make sure I get the win for my team en route to the Gold. I was delighted that both me and Saurav got those important wins at the Asian Games.
2: How would you compare the venues and the crowds for the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games?
A: The venue at CWG was the best venue I have ever seen. The way the glass court was put up with all the lightings when the match was played was incredible. All the staff and the volunteers did a commendable job every day to make sure the athletes were at ease all the time. Everything we needed was made available to us at the venue. The crowd was very knowledgable and it was a great feeling to play in front of such a wonderful crowd which supported both the players.
The venue at the Asian Games was also a good place to play squash. The crowd cheered for their local team in an incredible manner and that charged their players up to give it their all. I guess after experiencing the people cheering in Korea most of the teams were relieved that they were not in the same half as them. The crowd was very courteous and supported us all the way.
3: Obviously there is a massive build-up to these events. How would you describe the training and selection process for the Indian squash teams?
A: I had been training for more than a year keeping these Games in mind. Everything I did on and off the court was related to the games. My training was being supervised by the coaches, Maj. Maniam, Cyrus Poncha and Balamurgan at the Indian Squash Academy in Chennai. I am very thankful for their support.
The selection process for the team was very transparent and was held at the Indian Squash Academy keeping all the players informed about it.
4: Your match with Scotland number one Alan Clyne was one of the outstanding highlights of the Commonwealth Games. Sadly the result did not go your way. What do you remember of the occasion and what did you learn from the experience?
A: As soon as I saw the draw I knew that playing Alan in front of his home crowd would not be an easy task. I did not panic when I saw the arena full of Scottish people cheering him while entering the court. I was nervous but at the same time I enjoyed every minute of that gruelling match.
One particular moment was at 9 all in the 5th where Alan hit a loose boast from the back to the backhand front corner. When the ball hit the front wall I saw from the corner of my eye Alan struggling on the T and I knew that a simple drop shot would give me a match point. And I could not believe I hit the middle of the tin!!! I got too excited in those two seconds before hitting that shot. I am never going to forget that particular moment for the rest of my life!!!
Lesson learnt – Never get too excited in the 5th…
5: There were wild scenes on court as India celebrated that gold medal in Incheon. How did the format differ from the Commonwealth Games?
A: Yes, all of us were out of our senses. It was the greatest feeling ever. That was the proudest moment of our lives for us boys. We had all worked very hard to get there and we were not ready to go home without our gold medal that day. Winning it as a team made it that extra more special.
In the Commonwealth we don’t have the Team events but have doubles format, whereas in the Asians we have the Team event and not the doubles. So there there is that uniqueness about both these events and we have to prepare very differently for them.
6: The development of the Indian Circuit has been a significant development. How has it been received and supported back home?
A:the inception of the JSW Indian Squash Circuit has played a very vital role for all of us Indian players. It has given us an opportunity to show our metal in our own backyard. I had always craved for these types of events for years to happen in my country. I loved being a part of it.
The circuit was managed brilliantly by Ritwik Bhattacharya, who made sure all the athletes were being taken care of. He was there each day to make sure things ran smoothly and the crowd got their space to sit comfortably and enjoy the game. Different clubs where the events took place went out of their way to cater to our needs and all the athletes were happy and enjoyed their time in the end.
7: Has this helped towards establishing another major PSA / WSA event in India?
A: I believe these events were the beginning for the major PSA/WSA events to happen in the future. The crowd who came to watch was very excited to see the level of squash that was played. And many of them also inquired about the big events happening in the future. It’s always a healthy sign when the people are eager to see more and higher level of squash in the next series of events.
8: Congratulations on becoming Indian National champion. Please talk us through the match, and explain how it felt to end Saurav’s long unbeaten run?
A: It was always going to be tough to play Saurav in the National finals. I knew exactly how hard I have been working and would leave the rest on the performance on court. I was very stressed emotionally as I was playing one of my best of friends and it’s never easy.
It was emotionally very tiring. I had to fight two battles to win. And it showed when I started crying after I won. The fact that I have always respected my seniors a lot on court, I make it tough for myself.
But that doesn’t mean I am pushing them or something or behaving badly. You respect them, but at the same time you do what is right for you in order to beat them. And I did that in the finals.
Winning the Nationals means the world to me as it was one of the goals I had set as a child. I had been eyeing the title for some years now and I’m glad that I did it.
My best finishes before this has been reaching the finals in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.
9: The Asian Beach Games sounded a lot of fun. Please tell us about the whole experience, the venue, the scoring system and your run to the gold medal.
A: The name itself adds to all the excitement of the event. It was the first time a squash court was set up on the beach looking at the ocean through the front wall. The venue was a five-minute walk from the resort where we were put up.
It was a hustling area where all the tourists were sunbathing in the day and after the sunset were enjoying the quick matches. It was best of three games, with each game up to seven points. This scoring pattern was really exciting, where hitting just two errors could get you in trouble.
I got a bye in the first round, beat an Iranian 2-0 in the second round, beat Asim Khan of Pakistan 2-0 in the semis and beat Yip of Hong Kong 2-1 in the finals.
The final was a close match where, after winning the first game comfortably, I relaxed a bit in the second and the tables turned.
In the third it was neck and neck till 3-3 and I pushed for the lead and won 7-3.
The beauty of this format is that you cannot afford to relax even for 10 seconds and all the points matter. That was an event full of excitement.
10: What were your thoughts on Ramy Ashour’s victory in the World Championships in Qatar?
A: I don’t have any words to describe what he achieved by winning the World Open. Incredible and outstanding aren’t even the right words for it. Being out of the game for six months and coming back for the first tournament since the injury and WINNING it is just pure dedication and will to win.
“RAMY ASHOUR IS JUST MAGIC”
11: What are your plans and targets for 2015?
A: I am eying the top 50 spot in 2015 and staying there consistently and get higher in the rankings. My major plans are to play a couple of big events and getting important wins in them as it will give me a great boost in confidence to keep doing better.
Thank you, Harinder, and good luck for 2015 from everyone at Squash Mad.