Despite the towering glass walls of the cage surrounding him, Abhay Singh managed to deposit his racquet into the crowd with an almighty heave. In the days since that moment — which sealed the men’s squash team’s gold medal at the recently-concluded Asian Games with a win over Pakistan — Abhay has replayed it a fair few times courtesy of clips on the internet.
He admits now that he cannot remember too much of what happened during that adrenaline-soaked, testy final against Noor Zaman.
“I lost myself (in that moment) which is why I chucked my racquet into the crowd. I didn’t know what was happening. I was really feeling a lot of emotion. Even after everything had settled there was too much going on. So many emotions,” Abhay recollected to The Indian Express on a Twitter Space earlier this month. “It’s the first time I have thrown my racquet into the crowd. It went flying. There is a video on Twitter which I watch over and over. It’s funny how different people react to that moment.”
It was the sort of gripping match that people talk about decades later. The fate of the gold medal rested on Abhay’s match against Noor Zaman after Mahesh Mangaonkar lost to Nasir Iqbal, and Saurav Ghosal defeated Muhammad Asim Khan. Just a few days before the final, both teams had met in another clash, where India had lost. This one too seemed destined to end the same way with Noor two points away from the title.
The India vs Pakistan final had an extra edge. Not that an India-Pakistan game needs one. But after Pakistan had won the group stage encounter, a member of the Pakistani contingent posted a video on how they had beaten their neighbours on social media which the Indians deemed disrespectful.
“Before that video, we wanted the clash to be cordial. But after seeing that, it became a bit more personal. Me being the young, hot-headed one, I took it differently to the other three. They were like let it go. I was like, ‘Inko hum dikhayenge.’ I took it personally. Maybe it was a lack of maturity in these situations.”
While Abhay was playing against Pakistan, back home, his mother wasn’t watching. She was instead taking a nap.
“My mum is a heart patient so she can’t watch me play. She can’t deal with the nerves. Usually what happens when I play is that my dad is watching on TV. And he gets pretty excited and starts shouting. And my mum will be in another room where she can figure out what’s happening in the match thanks to my dad who is quite vocal. During the Pakistan game, my dad was at work and my mom was home. Their phones started blowing up with messages after the result. That’s when they found out I had won.”
For Abhay, that moment was a sign that he had made the right decision two years back when he contemplated quitting the sport.
“Pre-COVID, I was playing the best squash of my life. But during the pandemic, as an athlete I wasn’t able to compete. It was a weird situation. Post-COVID, getting back to sport was not that easy. I struggled with a few results. It just got to a point where I was like if I have given so much to the sport, the least the sport could do was make me happy. And it didn’t. Maybe at that point, if I had walked away it would not have been forever. Maybe at some point I would have tried to come back,” he said.
“One of the options would have been becoming an assistant coach. It would have been something to do with sport. Maybe I would have pursued an undergrad degree in the UK.”
As he ruminated over that decision, he got the email in January 2022 from the squash federation about the trials for the Commonwealth Games in April 2022. That email changed the course of his career.
At the Asian Games in Hangzhou, Abhay played 13 matches over the space of 10 days. After helping the men’s team to a gold medal, he partnered teenager Anahat Singh to claim bronze. It was the sort of thing that required him to be in peak fitness.
“I have put in a lot of work in the summer, to be in the shape and conditioning that it is in now,” said Abhay. “On the day I won that game to seal India’s gold, I was with the physio till 1:30 am in the morning. My body was busted. I had two very tough matches. The next morning I had to start mixed doubles. I had two matches the next day,” he said.
This conditioning is in sharp contrast to when he started playing as a teenager at the Indian Squash Academy in Chennai.
“When I was 15 years old, I was quite overweight. Must have been about 96 kilos. I remember thinking I needed to shed this weight. So I thought playing squash would help. Within months, I not only went into the top 4 in India, but also lost 26 kilos in the span of a year to drop to 70 kg,” he said.