French World No.1 Gregory Gaultier is coming off the back of arguably the greatest season of his distinguished 17-year career and the 34-year-old is aiming for even more success in the next campaign.
The charismatic Frenchman recovered from a difficult 2016 to establish himself at the summit of the game once more in 2017, with a remarkable run of form seeing Gaultier lift six PSA World Tour titles on the bounce after going 27 matches unbeaten – the longest unbeaten streak of his career.
Gaultier’s historic season also saw him lift his third British Open title, which meant he became the oldest World No.1 of all time – and he admits that his motivation stemmed from the fact that he had an injury-hit 2016 which prevented him from being at his best.
“Lots of us have the same goals and want to be the best at what we do,” said Gaultier.
“With my age and the years I’ve spent on the Tour, I now have a lot of experience. As long as I play on the Tour, my goals won’t change because without goals, you don’t have motivation.
“This year was pretty special but my motivation really came from a very poor year I had in 2016, with a lot of injuries and bad performances, which caused a lot of frustration.
“I wanted to prove something to myself, that I could come back to a good level.”
And that’s exactly what the ‘French General’ did, taking the honours at September’s NetSuite Open before injury struck again in November, with an ankle injury sustained against Egypt’s Tarek Momen in the quarter-finals bringing his World Championship title defence to a halt.
“I was devastated,” admits Gaultier.
“I was playing well against Tarek in the quarters, we had a great match and I must have twisted my ankle during a lunge. Straight after the match I couldn’t even walk. Once it got cold it got worse and worse.
“We did everything possible with my physios and I still went to the practice with some hope but I couldn’t even go on the bike to warm-up. My chances were gone.
“I really thought that year wasn’t suppose to be mine, I broke my ligament in New York and then I thought winning the World Championship would made me forget that bad year, then I hurt the same ankle again at a late stage of the event.”
After sitting out the Qatar Classic and bowing out of the British Grand Prix at the semi-final stage, Gaultier headed to New York after the Christmas break – where his charisma and showmanship was on full display inside the iconic Grand Central Terminal.
Then-World No.1 Mohamed ElShorbagy stood between Gaultier and a place in the Tournament of Champions final, with Gaultier still smarting from their previous meeting, which had seen ElShorbagy overcome the ‘General’ in controversial circumstances to win the El Gouna International the previous April.
An imperious display from Gaultier saw him surge into a 2-0 lead when, at 8-7 up in the third, an incorrect decision by the video referee in ElShorbagy’s favour saw the wheels come off for Gaultier as ElShorbagy fought back, eventually taking the third before going on to level the scores in game four.
To make matters worse, the Frenchman suffered an injury to his glute during the third game and looked to be on his way home at the end of the fourth after he finished the game slumped over on the floor.
But, rather than shake hands, Gaultier got to his feet for a nail-biting decider in which he turned the match on its head once more.
Playing on one leg, Gaultier battled his way back into the match, with every point he won bringing about wild gesticulating as the crowd got behind the man from Epinal and he eventually closed it out to earn an incredible victory.
“Of course it was a weird match, I was feeling great, hitting and moving well and was happy to get some good feeling again on court until I hurt my glutes and piriformis,” Gaultier explained.
“I couldn’t bend my left leg anymore. Mo probably thought I was going to shake hands but I decided not to and gave it a try until the last point as I didn’t want to give up. I tried to stay focused on my shots and targets rather than thinking of the pain.
“He started to lose it and played wrong tactically and gave me opportunities. I just played with the crowd, who were going crazy after each point. It gave me adrenaline and I couldn’t believe I could keep scoring points and getting close to winning.
“Without all my physios and my doctor, who were there to help after the match, overnight and the next day, I wouldn’t have played in the final. I had to do lot of physio work everyday the two following weeks to get rid of that injury.”
Gaultier failed to lift the Tournament of Champions title – falling to World Champion Karim Abdel Gawad in the final – but a 3-1 win over the same opponent in the following month’s Swedish Open final kickstarted his incredible run of form, which culminated in a superb title victory at the British Open.
His victory over home favourite Nick Matthew saw him become the oldest winner of the sport’s most distinguished title since Hashim Khan in 1958, while he also overtook ElShorbagy at the summit of the World Rankings – replacing Sarah Fitz-Gerald as the oldest ever World No.1, male or female.
“I didn’t know I was the oldest winner in the British Open, I was just delighted to lift that special trophy again,” he said.
“This moment will stay in my memory forever and I will still try hard to put my name on it again.”
Gaultier’s stunning run saw him win the Swedish Open, Windy City Open, British Open, El Gouna International, Grasshopper Cup and Bellevue Classic and he puts his remarkable consistency down to experience, saying: “I think I built up confidence after winning each match and each event, I recovered well in between events and I was relaxed all the time.
“Maybe it’s experience and the things you keep working every day to improve that came together. Mentally, I kept pushing myself until my limit.”
Gaultier had a mixed week during the season-ending PSA Dubai World Series Finals, finishing bottom of his group after failing to win a match in the best-of-three games format – which he puts down to a combination of factors.
“When I came back home from Seattle [for the Bellevue Classic], I felt heavily fatigued. I didn’t have much strength to train again and I just tried to rest as much as possible. I felt like my body was slow and flat all day long.
“On top of that I had some family and personal issues that really affected me mentally, it added a lot of stress. When I got there [to Dubai], I didn’t expect to move or play at that kind of level.
“I still did what I could on court, I pushed myself but that’s the way it went. I decided to play, I lost, I took it on the chin and now I just think of next season.
“Of course I was disappointed to end the season that way. I haven’t trained since that event , I just started my summer preparation a short time ago. I needed a break really,
I’m not a machine and I have certain limits.
“When you add the travelling and training on top, I played an average of one match every three days from January 1 until the end of May, including PSA events and others commitments.”
Despite his on-court malaise in Dubai, Gaultier was honoured off the court after his incredible season saw him awarded the PSA Men’s Player of the Season at the PSA Awards Gala held the night before the tournament.
Gaultier was honoured alongside compatriot and Women’s World No.3 Camille Serme and he was delighted to pick up the award.
Gregory Gaultier (right) and Camille Serme (left) with their Player of the Season awards
“It was an amazing feeling as it’s the first time in my career, I’m really thankful to all the people who voted, especially as it was shared with Camille.
“It’s a very unique moment for two Frenchies to win at the same time.”
And what are the future goals for the man who has won it all?
“To become World Champion and to win as many events as possible!” he says with a smile.
If the legendary Frenchman can keep up the incredible form he displayed in 2017 then few would bet against him adding to the history books once more next season.