Exclusive by RJ Mitchell
In our exclusive series of interviews with the legends of squash, today the PSA website is delighted to turn the spotlight on the great Geoff Hunt.
The Australian squash immortal became the game’s first ever professional World Champion when he beat Mohibullah Khan in five rollercoaster games in London in 1976 and went on to win four global titles while ruling as World No.1 between 1975 and 1980.
But Hunt also claimed a then record-breaking eighth British Open title in 1981, when he became the only man to beat Jahangir Khan in the final of the sport’s longest-running tournament.
The 73-year-old also enjoyed rivalries with some of the game’s greatest names spanning his fellow Aussies, Ken Hiscoe and Cam Nancarrow, Pakistani maverick Qamar Zaman, the legendary Jonah Barrington and of course the man who succeeded him as British Open title winner, Jahangir Khan, who also would eclipse his record of eight titles in capturing his ninth British crown in 1990.
In 1969, Hunt also captured the World Amateur Championship while winning his first British Open, and as he looked back at some of the defining moments of his stellar career, the warmth and respect in his voice towards his former rivals was all too clear and the pinnacle of his playing career without doubt.
“Winning that eighth British Open was obviously incredibly special to me and probably even more so as I had to beat Jahangir to do it. Obviously, it set a new record and took me beyond some great players and so it meant an awful lot and probably sits at the top for me,” Hunt recalled.
“Jahangir was just such a physical player to play against and the intensity he brought to the court was immense while we were at opposite ends of our career, I was 34 and he was 17 and I guess my big regret was that after that match injury meant I wasn’t able to really do myself justice against him.
“I had sustained a wrist injury which was hugely frustrating as it meant I had to take pace off my shots but the problem with Jahangir was that you needed to fight fire with fire and give him the ball back just as hard as he hit it.
“So I guess beating Jahangir in my last British final was my biggest achievement and then one of my biggest regrets became not being able to trade with him as I had after that British final, but I had a pretty good run.”
What makes Geoff’s career even more unique is that it spanned the dying days of the amateur game in the 60s and early 70s to the dawning of the professional game and in his twilight reign as squash’s man to beat, he faced off against Jahangir, the man who would take the sport to the next level.
It is clear it was a long and winding road: “The other big thing for me was winning the World Amateur Championship in Melbourne back in 1967. It was the inaugural event and it was held in Melbourne and I trained extremely hard for it.
“I had to beat my fellow Australians, Ken Hiscoe in the semi-final and then Cam Nancarrow in the final after he’d beat Jonah [Barrington] in the other semi-final.
“But in ’69 when the World Amateur was held in London it was the other way round with Jonah beating Cam and I had Jonah in the final after I had again beaten Ken in the semi and managed to beat Jonah in four sets. But they were all great guys to play against and players who helped me mould my game, develop, and shape it, physically, mentally, and tactically.
“Looking back Ken Hiscoe, the great Australian player, was my first big rivalry and in order to win the Australian Championship he was the guy you had to beat but there were other Aussies I had to overcome like Cam Nancarrow, who I defeated to win my first ever British championship in 1969.
“But Ken had won seven Aussie Championships and he was a very skilful shot-maker and the key was to work out a strategy to negate that. In fact I would say part of the reason I took on so many volleys was it helped get me past Ken, but it was very difficult.
“1969 was a big year for me, to do the double and win both the World Amateur and then the British Open in the same year was a big achievement. In the semis of the British I played AbouTaleb who had already won it three times but physically was maybe past his peak.
“When I met Abou I thought I hit a good length, but I just couldn’t get out the corners against him, fortunately I was able to wear him down to get through in four sets. Yet that game taught me a big lesson, Abou didn’t hit the ball hard, he was just extremely accurate, had a lot of tennis in his game, which he played in the summer and he was a master tactician.”
But perhaps the rivalry that defined Hunt’s distinguished career was the meeting of fire and ice that was to be his gripping battle with Jonah Barrington for the right to be acclaimed as the game’s supreme player, which spanned a nine-year period between 1967 and 1976, with first the Cornish Irishman on top before Hunt wrestled control of the No.1 ranking his way in 1975.
Geoff reflected: “Jonah was an exceptional squash player and he was simply different to everyone else. When I came across at first to the UK in ’63 he was only maybe No.5 and to be honest he wasn’t that great. But that was before Nasrullah [Khan] got a hold of him and when that happened it all changed within the space of 12 months.
“The first thing I would say is that Jonah probably had the best and certainly most accurate serve I ever came up against. In particular his lob serve to the backhand side was remarkably effective. Whenever he served you knew it was coming in against the wall and that made him exceedingly difficult to attack.
“As well as that he maintained an exceptionally good tight length and had a great lob that could get him out of trouble every time, he was awfully hard to attack. With all the work he had done with Nasrullah he also became exceptionally fit and he was both patient and tenacious with that.
“The biggest compliment I could pay Jonah was that he was one awkward customer and he knew it and loved it.”
Like any squash player there were losses that still leave even this titan of the game tossing and turning in the still of the night. Perhaps it is no surprise it was one of those legendary tussles with Barrington that is the source of this anguish.
Geoff revealed: “If there is one match that still gives me nightmares, even at 73, it is the British Open final of 1972, 48 years ago. As squash players we’ve all had a sore defeat that no matter how hard you try still rears its ugly head and that was the match and it had to be against Jonah.
“I had a problem that after about one hour and 25 minutes of a very hard match I would cramp and in that one Jonah had gotten 2-1 up against me and we were hitting that territory and I was starting to feel that cramp wasn’t far away.
“So I put a hell of an effort in to turn it around and took the fourth and got to 7-0 up in the fifth and that was when my whole body seemed to go into a spasms and the bugger ran straight through me. To get that close and have it taken from you, well like I say that was the big one that got away for me and it had to be Jonah who nicked it from me.”
With 12 major titles to his name (eight British Open championships and four World Championship titles), Hunt occupies a unique place when it comes to pontificating about the game’s G.O.A.T.
The ‘70s squash icon said: “You can only look at records and use the statistics to judge who was the greatest and the record books will tell you that Jahangir [Khan] won more majors than anyone else and that is why you have to say he is the man at the top of the mountain.
“He attacked with such intensity and his game put you under so much pressure that unless you could counter that with similar pace and aggression it was only going one way and no one really had the answer when Jahangir was in his pomp, as his five year unbeaten run in the ‘80s underlines.
“Obviously my career was coming to an end by the time Jansher [Khan] emerged so I didn’t play him that much but he had different skills, was a great mover and had a masterful control over the pace of his shots. But when it comes to the most talented, I would have to say Rodney Martin was right up there.
“He didn’t have the physicality of Jahangir in terms of how hard he hit the ball, but boy could he put it away. Rodney went for more than anyone else and it didn’t always come off, but he had great deception and it was a tragedy his career was cut short so early by injury.
“Qamar Zaman was also hugely talented but he made a lot more errors than Rodney and the fact Rodney is the only player to have beaten both Jahangir and Jansher in the same tournament to win the 1991 Worlds tells you a story that when he was on his game he could beat anyone and he did.
“When you consider to win that World Championship he also had to beat Chris Dittmar, who was very unlucky not to win a major himself, well Rodney was just a phenomenal talent but at the top it has to be Jahangir because that is what the record books tell you.”
Geoff Hunt coaching Qatar's Abdulla Mohd Al Tamimi
Until recently, Hunt guided the fortunes of Qatar’s World No.29 Abdulla Mohd Al Tamimi and he has high hopes for his former charge who is now under the tutelage of Rodney Martin.
“I do really enjoy the modern game and I try to stay on top of it as much as possible. I worked with Abdulla up until the World Championships last year when he came so close to beating Tarek Momen and I believe he has the skill to break the top 20 and beyond.
“Abdulla is now being coached by Rodney Martin and I think Rod is the perfect person to help Abdulla realise his full potential and that will make a him a very dangerous player in the years ahead.”