James Willstrop had beaten long-time friend Saurav Ghosal eight out of nine times before Wednesday, almost always in a convincing fashion within three games. Both coached by Willstrop’s legendary father-coach Malcolm, know each other’s game like the back of their hands. Willstrop was also the defending Commonwealth Games champion. Until the Indian squash No 1 finally turned the tide of their history and beat the 38-year-old Englishman to take the bronze medal at the Birmingham CWG.
Ghosal’s promising career, given credence when he won the British Junior’s title in 2004, has seen its ups and downs. He has won titles across the world but when it came to the big one, he always slipped agonisingly close to his final frontier. A medal at the Commonwealth Games was, in his words, ‘the gloss’ missing from his trophy cabinet. A trophy cabinet that could have been further filled if not for the near misses.
BRONZE FOR SAURAV! 🥉
Way to go Saurav 🔥
— SAI Media (@Media_SAI) August 3, 2022
Three years ago, Saurav Ghosal was in a battle with the Egyptian known as ‘Beast’. Mohamed El-Shorbagy was the current World No 2 and Ghosal was in the fight of his life at the World Championship quarter-finals. Then a 33-year-old, Ghosal had spent 15 years on the squash circuit and if things went his way, this would have been the biggest fish he ever reeled in his career.
He ended up taking El-Shorbagy to five games and 85 minutes later lost on the softest of backhands. The final score read 11-5, 9-11, 9-11, 12-10, 10-12 but it was that last point in the last game that always rankled Ghosh. He later spoke about how had he hit the ball slightly softer, or harder, then his Egyptian opponent’s return would have hit the tin and that point could have changed every narrative about his career.
Ghosal had the chance to change how his history read once again on Tuesday when he took on yet another World No 2 in New Zealand’s Peter Coll. But the lanky Kiwi was operating on a different stratosphere, combining his other worldly reach to fish out the tightest of angles while using his superior athleticism to counter whatever Ghosal had to offer. By the third game, the Indian had emptied his tank out, trying a variation of shots against his Kiwi conqueror. The effort had taken enough out of him for one to believe that the bronze medal match in a day’s time was likely out of the question. Ghosal disagreed.
There is also the historical precedent of him having lost his bronze medal match at the 2014 Glasgow Games – against Willstrop to boot. But that elusive singles title that he had been chasing for years finally landed here in Birmingham.
Winning a singles medal at the Commonwealth Games has been the one goal that was Ghosh’s final frontier. His confidence going into the 2018 Gold Coast event was sky high. Talking about his preparations, Ghosal had told journalists at the time that he was scheduling his events before the Games in such a manner that he would get a week or two’s worth of rest before pushing his body again. But a shock exit in the first round meant that his dream of winning a Commonwealth medal was looking bleak.
Cut to four years later and the leadup to these Birmingham Games has been subdued. Older now, Ghosal silently went through the field, easing past Sri Lanka’s Shamil Wakeel 11-4, 11-4, 11-6. His first match of the CWG was a perfect warm-up session – a three-game quick turnaround that allowed him to conserve energy for tougher rounds later into the tournament.
Ghosal then stuck to the script, beating the Canadian National champion and World No 62 David Baillargeon 11-6, 11-2. 11-6. It was only in the Round-of-16 against Greg Lobban that he finally dropped a game. But the World No 34 from Scotland had to succumb as his 35-year-old compatriot continued his march towards the medals, culminating in a semi-final match against Coll.
After the loss to Coll, Ghosal went into the bronze medal match tired and broken but pulled out all the stops against Willstrop. This isn’t the Willstrop of old as well. Turning 39 this summer, the Englishman has seen better days and his reactions to Ghosal’s shots, particularly on the forehand side, were telling.
On the side-lines of his epic victory Ghosal acknowledged the moment. He went into a corner and wept. A few moments later he scaled the barricades and hugged his wife. He even acknowledged Willstrop’s influence in his life when he said, “He’s my best friend in life but to do it at this stage, winning India’s first individual Commonwealth Games medal…”. Ghosal finally got the gloss he so richly deserved.