INTERVIEW by MIKE DALE
Squash Mad caught up with Nele Gilis on her return from the CIB Egyptian Open to talk about her fabulous victory in Nantes, the experience of facing sister Tinne, life at home with boyfriend Paul Coll, veganism … and sweaty hands!
Nele beat Tinne in the final, winning 11-9, 11-6, 11-3 in front of raucous audience inside a graffiti-covered warehouse next to the Rover Loire.
In the semi-finals she had to battle for 77 minutes to beat a resurgent Tesni Evans 10-12, 11-7, 10-12, 11-3, 11-7.
In Egypt she was on court for more than an hour before losing in the round of 16 to eventual winner Hania El Hammamy. Nele won the first game but Hania eventually won 5-11, 11-7, 11-6, 11-9.
Now she is looking ahead to an incredibly busy season alongside boyfriend Paul Coll.
Hi Nele, please tell us about your experience winning the Open de France in Nantes
It was my best tournament so far. Everything fell into place. I felt confident, I was moving well and felt physically better than my last two events. I just really enjoyed myself out there. I felt like myself again.
I injured my hip just before the British Open [in April]. I couldn’t train and I was playing my matches on painkillers because I really wanted to finish the season. In June, the doctor said I would need surgery and six months to recover, but I found an alternative treatment. It was a bit of a risk but it worked.
The doctor said it would take at least two months to return but my recovery was actually a lot faster. It was a tough period not being able to train the way I wanted to, but I just focused on my rehab and worked mainly on my short game. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. I wasn’t expecting to be playing this well this soon.
Tell us about Nantes as a spectacle
It was like a festival. It was incredible. From the first round there were full stands and 80% of the crowd has never played or seen squash before. They were just there for a good time. The energy the crowd gives you from round one is something else.
I’ve never seen anything like it at any other event. It’s just what the sport needs. They are definitely doing something right in Nantes and others should learn from it.
How was it playing your sister Tinne in such a big final?
We’ve played in tons of finals but this was definitely the biggest match we’ve played together.
Although it was a very special night for both of us because of the crowd, the venue and our mum coming all the way over to watch, it was also very hard to switch off. She is my sister but I have to look at her as an opponent.
In one way, I absolutely hate playing her, but on the other hand if I’m going to play against anyone in such a big final, I would want it to be her. It’s love and hate at the same time! Oh, so many mixed feelings.
Here is the moment that Belgium's @NeleGilis claimed the biggest title of her career to date, beating younger sister Tinne to win her second crown at the @psasquashnantes 💪#OpendeFrance pic.twitter.com/1ExuHP05Eh
— PSA World Tour (@PSAWorldTour) September 17, 2022
Then you were straight off to the CIB Egyptian Open. Were you pleased with your performance against Hania El Hammamy, even in defeat?
No, I am really gutted as I have had good battles with her in the past and I knew I could take a few chunks out of her. It was a really good match for me to learn from. There were a few moments where she stepped up and increased the pace and I didn’t respond. There were just a few details to reflect on where maybe next time I can do better. I feel like I’m close.
What things are you doing in order to get closer to the top Egyptians?
I’ve been working with Rob Owen for a few years now and we study the Egyptian girls’ games but also work on my technique, my attacking game, and making small changes in my movement to make me more efficient. He gives me a lot of belief in myself. I just try to get 1% better every day.
Rob has given me this whole new perspective on the game. He sees things that neither I or other coaches have seen before. It’s incredible really. I feel like you have to experience a day with him to fully understand.
Give us an example…
He prioritises getting into a good position before each shot to give myself more options. That comes back to making my movement around the court a bit smoother and free-flowing, instead of jerky and stop-start. It’s almost about slowing my movement down a little bit, instead or running to the T and stopping. It’s a work in progress, but I’m learning!
These small improvements take months as it’s hard to change if you’ve done something one way for 15 years, but they make a big difference. As players we’re always looking to improve and it’s fun continuously learning new things.
Does your boyfriend Paul Coll chip in with coaching tips?
We analyse each other all the time! I would almost say we obsess over each other’s games!
We are both coached by Rob, so we notice things in each other’s swings or movement while we’re training together. We try to correct each other. It’s really helpful and obviously we offer each other a lot of emotional support too.
At the same time, we try to spend time not talking about squash by going for a date night or swimming in the sea. We have a good balance. We’re good at communicating if we need a break. We are very in tune with what each other needs and wants.
Being in tune includes your diets, I understand?
Yes, we have been vegan for six years now. We saw a documentary and decided to try it for one week. After that, we never went back to eating animal products.
The one thing we noticed straight away is that our recovery improved drastically. I used to get lots of lactic in my legs after a couple of hard sessions. It was a real problem for me, but since I went vegan I haven’t had the problem once.
Tell us about your racket sponsor Stellar – something of a throwback brand?
I was looking for a new sponsor and I heard they wanted to make a comeback after being big in the 80s, sponsoring the likes of Susan Devoy. I really liked the racket and liked the idea that I would be the only top player using them. I love the grips – I get very sweaty hands so that’s a huge thing for me.
What’s next for you?
The US Open [starting on October 8]. I now have a few weeks’ training, then the schedule is insane. I won’t be at home at all from mid-October until February.
I’m really excited, though. I feel like everything I’ve been working on for the last few years is all coming together. Getting into the top 10 is my main goal for this season. I really want to play, improve, get more experience and get a few big scalps.
Thank you, Nele, and good luck for the rest of this season.
Pictures courtesy of PSA World Tour