At the end of 2022, Mathieu Castagnet announced he was retiring, aged 36. The French Warrior, a nickname that paid tribute to his fighting spirit on court, looks back on a career which had reached its peak in 2016.
A NEW CHAPTER
Mathieu, what was your decision making that led you end your professional career?
Mathieu Castagnet: The first step was me passing a civil service examination in the summer of 2021, which kind of secured my professional future. Then there was the European Club Championship last September, where we narrowly missed on the title with Mulhouse. On a personal level, I played great that week – while I’d struggled to push myself during preseason – and after the final I felt that it was the end of something. The next day, I flew to Cairo for the CIB Egyptian Open, I lost in the first round against Auguste Dussourd and I didn’t know yet that it was my last PSA match. A few weeks later, I got injured in training but to be honest it did not bother me that much. Although I was happy when I was able to start training again, it was clear in my mind I no longer wanted to compete.
Any regret not to have had a real farewell tournament in PSA?
M.C.: Not really, because I had the opportunity to play some big matches in 2022, especially at the Canary Wharf Classic, and to represent France one last time at the European Team Championship even though I got injured. My farewell will be at the French league play-offs in June, although I might continue to play for Mulhouse occasionally if they need me to.
What are your plans for the short-term as well as the long term future?
M.C.: This year, I am doing a Masters around training engineering, it involves some people who are experts in their respective fields. I am learning a lot and I can put it into practice, because for a couple of months now I have been working a few days a week with the younger players at the National Centre in Aix-en-Provence, where I come in support of Yann Menegaux and Yann Perrin. In September, I will be starting my year as an intern in a sports department following the examination I mentioned before – I don’t know where yet.
I would like to stay involved in squash, I think the French Federation feel the same way but some things are out of our control, especially the number of positions allocated to each Federation. After almost 20 years on the pro tour, I must admit I am a bit confused when I think about what’s ahead of me, I am going to have to process a lot of new things. Besides, I will go from 20-25 hours of sport per week to zero (he laughs), I’ll have to be careful about my mental and physical health. Finally, my wife is also unsure about her professional future (author’s note: former member of the French national team, Laura Pomportes-Castagnet is a temporary teaching and research associate in sports nutrition at the University of Aix-Marseille), so there are a lot of things up in the air for our family.
THE EARLY DAYS
Mathieu, how did you take up squash and what were your junior years like?
M.C.: I hit my first squash balls in the club owned by my parents, I was only three years old but my memories from that time are very vivid! I was on court every single day, I started playing tournaments very early and won the U11 National Championship at the age of 9. When I was 12, my parents sold the club. For a few years after that, I trained in other clubs that were some distance away and although my dad was taking me there once or twice a week, it’s not enough at that level and I went down in the national junior rankings. It came to a point where we had to decide whether I should quit squash or continue but with a full commitment.
It was obvious to me and I joined the National Youth Academy in Le Mans, where I improved a lot and closed the gap with the others thanks to Benoit Letourneau’s help. Unexpectedly, I made the final of the European U19 Championship after beating Chris Simpson in the semis, while being unseeded and only 17. There were more expectations the following year, but I lost in the quarters.
I think I was simply too confident and it taught me that as a professional athlete you can never take anything for granted. When I turned 19 I went to the National Centre in Aix-en-Provence, where I kept working on my technique, especially with André Delhoste who spent hundreds of thousands of hours with me on court (he laughs) …
How did you start on the PSA World Tour?
M.C.: Just before turning 19, I was No.1 in the European rankings and as such I was offered a PSA membership for a year. In the summer of 2005, I travelled to South America for a series of tournaments. That’s how it started for me and it was quite a leap, going to clubs I never heard of and that were sometimes empty during matches, having to sort accommodation and food by myself.
Although I steadily came up in the rankings, I could have ended my career in 2010: at the time, there was both less money in PSA and less financial support for players in France, and from age 20 to 25 I was living in a very small room on campus. Meanwhile, I passed my coaching diplomas and was very involved in my county – mainly thanks to Michèle Lecomte – so much that there were talks about hiring me full time. But things changed, both because Michèle sadly passed away and of my sudden rise in the rankings, which made me fully commit to my playing career.
My win against Cameron Pilley – the first one over a top 15 player – in the 2010 World Championship in Saudi Arabia was kind of a breakthrough, it showed me that I was able to beat these guys. I should point out that the years I had spent teaching squash to every possible type of audience had opened my eyes to many things and made me a better player. It was like I had figured out what my coaches had always expected of me.
You continued to rise steadily in the rankings between 2010 and 2015, and then stepped into another gear in 2016 …
M.C.: For some reason my goal was to reach WR49, I guess I didn’t want to get stuck at No.50. In fact I quickly climbed further. During this period, one of the highlights was my win against Mohamed ElShorbagy at the British Grand Prix at the end of 2014. Even if he wasn’t at his best that day beating a world number 1 is something special, and I was also very happy to back up against Miguel Angel Rodriguez the following day. Another one was my title in a 35k in Montreal, before that I did not have a good record in finals. I have only won 4 PSA tournaments, because as soon as my ranking allowed I focused on the World Series events rather than trying to win smaller ones.
Besides, when I started on tour there were no 6k and a couple of players – such as Peter Barker and Joey Barrington – were winning all the 10k. In 2015, I made the quarters several times in major events, and then came 2016. It started with a semifinal at the Tournament of Champions against Mohamed ElShorbagy, followed by my title at the Canary Wharf Classic which got me to world number 6. Although it was a very special moment, I’d say the thing I remember the most was my dive in Chicago, I never thought it would make so much noise. These few months were kind of a whirlwind of emotions, it happened very quickly but it was definitely worth it because that’s what we work for.
Unfortunately, the last part of your career was plagued with injuries.
M.C.: It started with a groin strain at the 2016 European Team Championship which led to a succession of other issues, mainly in my calves. I had been lucky with injuries before that and cannot complain, I am aware that my game was physically taxing and I paid the price. The problem is that at 30 years old you can’t train like you did when you were 20. Looking back, our strategy should have been different in terms of workload. That said, I don’t have any particular regret about this period, except maybe the 2017 World Team Championship in Marseille.
I wasn’t physically ready at all for this event and it was a nightmare. Even though I didn’t manage to get back in the top 20, when my body held I’ve had a few good results during the last phase of my career, such as my title in Wimbledon in 2018 and a semifinal in Canary Wharf in 2019. But to go far in major events, you have to beat several top 10-20 players in a row and that was the issue for me. Beyond the results, I am very proud to have always felt respect from my opponents, even the hungriest youngsters (he laughs), as well as having been nicknamed the French Warrior.
NEXT: Mathieu reveals his plans for the future and his greatest matches