In November last year, Frenchman Gregory Gaultier, the man know as ‘The General’ on the PSA World Tour, cut an emotional figure on court as he finally brought an end to a decade’s worth of heartbreak at the iconic PSA World Championship to clinch the coveted title at the fifth time of asking.
The man from Aix-en-Provence had previously squandered a series of golden opportunities to take the sport’s most illustrious crown – none more so than when he lost from 5 match balls up in 2006 – and the 33-year-old admits the memory of his 3-0 victory over Omar Mosaad still feels like a dream.
The moment Gaultier found out he was World Champion
Gaultier returned to training this week as he steps up his preparations for what promises to be an electric season on the PSA World Tour, with more tournaments taking place than ever before, and he says that victory in Seattle continues to inspire him to work even harder as he pursues yet more silverware to add to what is already a glittering trophy cabinet.
“Winning the World Championship last year was certainly the highlight of the season – it’s the highlight of my career,” said Gaultier.
“I had been dreaming of winning that event ever since I was a little kid and that title, and that win, will be there forever now – no one can ever take that away.
“The four previous finals I played in didn’t go the way I wanted, but when I look back at the World Championship now, I will only ever have a big smile on my face.
“Winning the final was an amazing feeling, but it was also probably the toughest match of my season because of the pressure that was facing me and having to manage that and deal with it.”
An emotional Gaultier after his 2015 World Championship triumph
Victory over Mosaad, in a match the Frenchman controlled form the outset, was the icing on the cake during a period of early-season dominance that had also seen Gaultier lift the first major title of the 2015/16 season, the U.S. Open, in October and finish as runner-up to World No.1 Mohamed ElShorbagy at the Qatar Classic.
While an early exit in the Hong Kong Open took some of the gloss off his pre Christmas run-in, Gaultier returned to action at January's Tournament of Champions in New York in scintillating form as he looked to push on from his World triumph – with the World No.1 target in his sights.
He scythed through his opponents to reach the semi-finals inside New York's Grand Central Terminal before a seemingly innocuous collision with Nick Matthew during the opening exchanges of their encounter ended with Gaultier on the sidelines in agony and facing a lengthy absence from competitive life.
“Getting injured in New York was very, very disappointing,” he said.
“I had a good break after Hong Kong which I needed. I was very tired after that first part of the season – I played 29 matches in three months, and was exhausted so after that tournament I went back to Paris, did some media commitments and then had some time off.
“After getting back into shape for the Tournament of Champions I was feeling fresh, I was hitting the ball well and was very motivated to win another big title. The injury, against Nick, stopped all that and really put me down.
“Even when you are World Champion, when an injury like that takes you out for two or more months, it can be very difficult and it isn't a pleasant experience.”
Gaultier is carried off court after his injury against Nick Matthew in January's Tournament of Champions semi-final
Away from the spotlight of the PSA World Tour, a period of intense rehab followed as Gautier’s tenacity and will to win drove him to push his body to the limit, and it was a strategy that paid off when he clinched the final title of the season – collecting the PSA Dubai World Series Finals crown in May along with one of the biggest pay-days of his career.
“I had to start from scratch again after New York. I knew my season was over and I had started the year with the goal to become World No.1 again and that was over straight away with the injury.
“But I pushed myself hard to rehabilitate and I came back quite early considering the severity of the injury. I knew I wasn’t fully fit in the first few events I played but I needed to get some matches under my belt. I knew I wouldn’t perform at my best but I had to accept that and play with the conditions I was in – and I thought I did that well and gave the best I could.
“To then get back to playing some of my best in El Gouna, where my squash and my speed really started to come back, was very pleasing and to end the season with the win in Dubai was a very positive note and a good feeling.”
Gaultier with son, Nolan, after winning the PSA Dubai World Series Finals
While Gaultier topped and tailed his season with victory in two of the most significant tournaments in the professional squash arena, it was perennial rival ElShorbagy who dominated the Tour to win every World Series title other than the U.S. Open and assert his dominance on the World No.1 berth.
At just 25, ElShorbagy will be looking to extend his credentials as a potential all-time great this season, but with fifteen players having occupied places inside the world’s top ten in the past season, Gaultier knows the competition for titles is set to become even fiercer than ever before.
“I’m just impressed by the level now that everybody plays at.
“Everybody has improved so much and the new players coming through are playing at a very high level. There are no easy matches in tournaments anymore and there are lots of upsets at every single event, which makes it very interesting for players and fans alike.
“Obviously I’d like to win another World Championship title and the aim for the season has to be to win as many events, especially the big events, as possible. There are still a few titles that I haven’t won, like the Hong Kong Open, that I would like to win as well but it won’t be easy.
“Every year it gets tougher. There are more competitive players and more tournaments than ever before now as well, so I have to be smart in my preparation and make sure that I peak at the right time for the important ones.”
With an unrelenting drive to win, the Frenchman adopts a relentless approach to his training and says the next few months will be key for all the players on Tour as they look to build their fitness levels ahead of the season.
“I had a good bit of time off after the finals in Dubai doing some exhibitions and then holidaying with my family, but it is back to work now,” he said.
“I will train five, five and a half days a week with two sessions a day. The first three weeks of pre-season are really just about building up fitness away from the court so you are prepared to go into more specific fitness afterwards.
“There's a lot of bike work and weights work going in during that time before moving onto a much more on-court fitness specific programme which will include drills and practice matches in the afternoons.
“Hopefully it will get me into the shape I need to be in for the coming season.”