‘He should not have hit the ball, but he waited with me until the ambulance arrived and apologised again’
EXCLUSIVE by JEROME ELHAIK (Squash Mad France Correspondent)
One week ago, Lucas Serme was involved in an incident which sent shock waves around the world of squash when he was struck in the head by a shot from Mostafa Asal in their second round tie at the U.S. Open. Lucas ended up in hospital and the young Egyptian superstar was disqualified.
We caught up with the Frenchman, who reflects on what happened in Philadelphia while looking ahead to the remainder of the 2022-23 season.
Lucas, as far as your health goes we got reassuring news quickly after the incident at the U.S. Open. How have you been doing?
I am OK. As a matter of fact I played a match in the Austrian League on Saturday (author’s note: he lost in five hard fought games against Hungary’s Farkas Balasz). After what happened I took a few days off and I started training again last Thursday.
Did you suffer from any side effects?
My hearing was back very quickly, but I experienced some whistling for a couple of days. The doctors said that all my other symptoms were consistent with a mild concussion and I had a small hole in my eardrum – which will repair by itself. They just prescribed some drops, and I will need to go and get checked in a few days to make sure that everything is fine.
Were you tempted at any point to come back on court after the interruption?
As professional players we don’t like to retire but not only the physios advised me against it, when I tried to get back up I felt really dizzy, so it was definitely not a good idea.
If the match had resumed, I would probably have missed the ball five times and it would have been over (he laughs).
At first, I was not aware that Mostafa Asal had been disqualified and that the match had been awarded to me – I had never been in this situation before in my whole career. In fact, my wife Anna told me when we were at the hospital.
On the other hand, the doctors warned me I should not play in the following round, so it was a very strange feeling. I did take some time to think about it, and the day after I told the PSA I decided to withdraw.
It’s frustrating to be in round three of a Platinum event and not play, however I don’t have any regret because it was the right call. Fortunately, I was allowed to fly back otherwise it would have been inconvenient. I felt some pain during takeoff but nothing major.
I supposed you’ve watched the video of the incident.
Yes, of course. I’ve also talked about it with a lot of people, and the thing that everyone agrees on is that Mostafa should not have played his shot.
I believe that what happened is the outcome of a succession of bad choices from both of us, in a very short time frame. When I played my crosscrourt, I thought that with his wingspan he was going to go for a volley backhand so I went back to the T.
As far as he’s concerned, after he turned he stopped looking at me and when he saw me it was too late. When I realised I was about to be hit, my first instinct was to protect my eyes. Luckily he did not strike the ball 100% but I still felt kind of knocked out really. That makes you realise that a squash ball can cause some damage …
According to the rules a player can be only awarded a let and not a stroke after having turned, and some people are wondering whether it should change …
Maybe it’s the opportunity for the governing bodies to look into it. I must admit I have mixed feelings. I know it wouldn’t make the rules of squash any clearer, nevertheless every situation is different and perhaps it should be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
Match action from Philadelphia before Lucas Serme was struck in the head by a shot from Mostafa Asal (Pictures by Nathan Clarke, PSA)
We’ve already mentioned this but the other rule-related aspect is that you were awarded the match. Would you have been upset if your opponent had been declared as the winner following your retirement?
I don’t think so. I was most gutted about not being able to see the match through. Even though I was going to try and come back, I was 2-0 and 6-4 down against one of the best players in the world. It’s only fair to say I was likely to lose.
Mostafa Asal is a controversial player, and there’s been a lot of noise on social media about what happened. What’s your view on him?
It’s no secret that he’s had a lot of trouble with referees and his conduct on court has been wrongful, most recently against Ali Farag at the Pyramids. It’s a shame because he’s a truly exceptional player, he does not need this and on the contrary I think it’s detrimental to him.
You can’t blame people for thinking ‘him, again’ after finding out he was involved in another situation and as far as I am concerned I believe that a majority of players would not have struck the ball.
On the other hand, it was completely unintentional and he never meant for anything bad to happen. He was not able to defend his title because of this, and it’s unfortunate that it ended that way for both of us.
And to give some credit to him, he waited with me until the ambulance arrived and apologised again – which he also did on social media the day after.
As you said before Asal was on his way to win the match but you were playing well before it was cut short, which is a fair reflection of your 2022-23 season so far.
Obviously beating him was unlikely given the scoreline, still I was hoping to get a game and the way I performed gives me confidence.
Yes, the first part of my season has been decent, although it could have been better if I’d made the quarters in San Francisco. I played a good match against Shahjahan Khan but wasn’t able to get the win.
In your recent post-tournament analyses, you mentioned new technical elements in your game.
For a bit less than a year I have been working with Lee Drew. Although I went to England a couple of times to spend some time on court with him, 90% of our work is done remotely.
As far as his method goes, he’s an English coach which means the basics of the game are important to him. It’s funny because I’ve constantly been told I needed to attack more, but Lee made me realise that firstly I had to rectify a few things at the back of the court in order to create the right opportunities. I believe that I made some progress and am on the right track.
We know him as a SquashTV commentator or the PSA refereeing director, less as a coach. Could you tell us how this relationship started?
When we moved to Prague with Anna, I no longer had a coach and to be honest I was going through a rough spell. I had lost my motivation, my confidence was very low and I was wondering where my career was heading.
Through his commentaries on SquashTV I always thought that Lee had great expertise and knew a lot about all the players. At the end of 2021, I did an interview with him for my sponsor Unsquashable, my wife Anna saw we had a good connection and said to me, ‘Why don’t you ask him to be your coach?’
I did, and he agreed … he not only helps me on the technical side of squash but also the mental one: he’s been a professional player and knows what it’s like to doubt yourself.
Your next PSA event will be the Grasshopper Cup, and you are facing fellow Frenchman Baptiste Masotti in the first round on Tuesday. How do you feel about that match?
I think that I’ve played well in our previous encounters. We know what I bring on court, whereas Baptiste is more unpredictable so the outcome may depend more on him. On the other hand, it will be best-of-three format which will be a first in our head-to-head.
After that, the Czech Open at the beginning of November will be your last appearance in PSA in 2022. Why did you opt not to play the tournaments in Oceania and Asia?
It would have been a lot of travelling, plus there will be covid-related restrictions in some of them and after discussing with Lee I realised I didn’t really want to go through that again.
I feel like I may have played too many tournaments in the past. These two months will be the opportunity to focus on training and I will still have a few league matches.
You turned 30 last February; do you still set clear goals or is it more about enjoying your time on court?
Of course as you get older you see things differently, and among my goals there are things that may not seem very tangible, such as giving meaning to what I do.
Having said that, I’ve been very close in the past and I still would like to break into the world top 30.
Thank you, Lucas, and good luck in Zurich and beyond.