By RJ Mitchell
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Squash legend Geoff Hunt believes the Egyptian big four dominating the top of the PSA World Rankings will be wary of the challenge of New Zealand’s Paul Coll when the PSA World Tour is expected to resume in Manchester, on September 16.
The great Hunt, third on the all-time majors winners list with eight British Open titles and four World Championship titles, sees parallels with his own imperious career and Coll’s attempt to break the stranglehold imposed by the globe’s current no.1 squash nation.
Right now Mohamed ElShorbagy is the game’s ultimate, the World No.1 and holder of the British Open, Tarek Momen occupies the World No.4 slot and is the reigning World Champion, Ali Farag No.2 and current US Open winner and Karim Abdel Gawad World No.3 and holder of the CIB Egyptian Open title and virtually unbeatable in his native land of the Pharaohs.
Rewind back to Hunt’s 1970s pomp and it was then that he found himself hunted by a posse of Pakistani aces as he tried to stay on top during his five -year tenure as the game’s undisputed ruler between 1975 and 1980.
Yet that is not the only parallel between Coll’s attempt to break the Egyptian hierarchy of the game, as much like Hunt before him, Coll has been forced to make technical changes to compliment his status as the fittest man on tour in order to make the final hard yards towards global glory.
Indeed much like the tweaks Coll has made, which were rewarded with his first win over World No.1 ElShorbagy in the Windy City Open and a run that took the Kiwi to the final Chicago, four-time World Champion Hunt was also forced to make changes to his grip in order to fend off the challenge of Qamar Zman, Mohibullah Khan, Gogi Alauddin and Hiddy Jahan.
So, it is not for nothing then that Hunt believes the Egyptian top four will be wary of the lone Kiwi when the PSA World Tour returns: “Of one thing I have no doubt, and that is the Egyptians will be wary of Paul,” said Hunt.
“They know how fit he is, and they know that he has that bloody mindedness and how much he wants it and you combine that with the technical improvements he has made with Rob [Owen] and the Egyptians have every right to be wary of him. I’ll bet that not one of them will want to be in his half of the draw when the first tournament is played at Manchester.
“But when I got on top my principle challengers were then Hiddy Jahan and Gogi Alauddin and while I felt that my basic game was better than theirs, the fact that I was fitter than them made things that bit more comfortable.
“The extra fitness edge I had developed also helped me get on top of Qamar Zman, who I ultimately played in three British Open and three World Open finals and Mohibullah Khan who I beat in the first World Open professional final in London in ’76.
“Possibly one of my most painful defeats to Qamar was in a British Open quarter final and it really drove me to improve my game technically because it became clear that fitness wasn’t going to be enough and that I needed to make technical adjustments to combat his great racket skill and touch, much like Paul Coll has had to do.
“To do that, on the high recommendation of Jonah [Barrington] and Kenny Hiscoe, I went to Azam Khan, who that said, despite his age still played great squash and I decided to seek his advice over my own game. So, over an orange juice at the Grampian Club he gave me two pieces of advice that turned out to be gold dust.
“First, he got me to change my grip on the racket from a hammer grip to something that was more, how can I describe it, in my fingers.
“Secondly he told me to undercut the ball and how effective cutting the ball could make me in terms of hitting short and kill shots.
“After that meeting with Azam I spent an extra hour a day hitting by myself including working on these two things and it definitely improved me in terms of ball control and my variety of shot.
“I still struggled to beat Qamar, but then he was a fabulous player and a British Open champion in his own right, but the improvements these two things made in my game and the greater control I had lifted my level enough so that combined with my edge in fitness I got the better of him.
“So, looking at Paul I can see some similarities in what he is attempting to do to cut through the Egyptians and good luck to him.”
When it comes to putting Coll’s improvements under the microscope the Aussie squash legend is in unique place to apply full focus: “Paul has made adjustments and improvements on the forehand flank and quite clearly he got a pretty decent return on that in Chicago back in February.
Paul Coll at the PSA World Championship
“It’s a simple process really, you work out your weaknesses and then you try and fix them and whether you can do it can be a difficult matter which sometimes means you need help and outside advice.
“I do think Paul can continue to improve, as he is 28 years-old and in a particularly good place to kick on. When you are at No.5 in the world and looking to make improvements there are not a lot of people who can help you achieve that and Paul’s relationship with Rob Owen is obviously working well for both of them.
“Rob has spent time working with Jonah [Barrington] and also been around Rod Martin and I remember from his time as a player that he had an interesting swing himself, but what he has done with Paul has provided a pretty quick return and I would imagine there will have been other areas they have been working on ahead of the resumption of the tour.
“I certainly could see changes in terms of Paul’s swing before the tour was suspended and the great thing about Paul is that he has always been a hard worker and his fitness and conditioning is arguably as good if not better than anyone else in the top 10.
“I think there are certain basics that must be givens if you are going to go all the way. Clearly fitness and conditioning are particularly important and there is no question over Paul on that account. Then there is accuracy and Paul has improved this, but, I believe, still can get better.
“Tactically, well you can always develop that and play smarter and the more experience you get and the bigger matches you play in and the more often you play in them then that all helps.
“Psychologically it is, of course, important to be strong and keep control mentally when you are under pressure and as I said Paul has come a long way in this regard.
“As a coach, from my own standpoint, I could maybe say I would have done things slightly different, but things, based on that run he had at the Windy City, where he beat ElShorbagy and Gawad and just came up short against Farag, are looking very positive for when he gets back out on the match court.
“But of one thing there is no doubt and that squash needs variety. It isn’t good for any one player or nationality to dominate and the better Paul gets and the stronger his challenge becomes at the top end of the game the better it will be for the men’s tour.”
Reflecting on his own titanic struggles with his Pakistani rivals, Hunt admits they very much hunted him as a pack: “I knew the Pakistanis talked about me and how they were going to beat me. The Pakistanis’ head coach and hierarchy put pressure on their players to beat me.
“I remember having a conversation with Hiddy Jahan and he told me that the head of the Pakistani Federation said to their players that what mattered most was not winning the tournament but beating Geoff Hunt.
“This was because if one of them beat me then it was almost assured, he or another of his countryman was going to win the event. But I think that worked in the reverse as kit put more pressure on them to perform and often as a result they did not play as well as normal.”.
Yet when it comes to the improvements in his own fitness which first took him to the summit of the game, Hunt admits he owed that key improvement to the immortal “Mr Squash” himself, Jonah Barrington.
“When I look back on my own career then I got my fitness to an extra level in response to Jonah beating me in some particularly important tournaments.
“I had been World Amateur champion in ’67, 69 and ‘71 and British Open winner in ’69 and Jonah took it away from me and won a few British (71,72,73,74) after that. This was partly due to Jonah being fitter than me.
“Particularly after losing the final of the ’72 British Open final to him from 7-0 up in the fifth after my body cramped all over, which I still have nightmares about, I was determined to pick up the gauntlet that Jonah threw down to me in terms of his fitness and it paid off across the boards.”