By RJ Mitchell
New Zealand squash legend Ross Norman believes France’s former World No.1 Gregory Gaultier has made good progress since returning from a career-threatening injury but raises question marks over whether he can reclaim his top 10 status.
In October 2018 at the U.S. Open the legendary Frenchman limped off court after an epic five-game, 74-minute battle with World No.1 Ali Farag. At that point Gaultier sat at World No.7 but what followed was a lengthy 15 months away from PSA action as he endured multiple surgeries and rehabilitation on a serious knee injury.
Gaultier currently sits eighth in the list of the oldest top 10 men’s PSA stars with the immortal Jonah Barrington top of that list having still been ranked in the elite echelon when he was an amazing 39 years and eight months back in December 1980-January 1981.
Norman, the man who won the most famous squash match in history when he ended Jahangir Khan’s fabled 555 successive victories by beating the great Pakistani in the final of the 1986 World Open, was 36 when he quit his 10 year plus top-10 residency back in 1995 and knows how tough it is to hold off the next generation.
Gaultier, who turned 38 in December, already holds the record as the game’s oldest No.1, when in April 2017 he reclaimed top spot from Mohamed Elshorbagy at 34 years and three months.
After his victory in last week’s Expression Networks Enjoy Open, which was his third on the second tier Challenger Tour, the great Gaultier has moved back up to World No.39 and admitted: “My goal is to get back in the top 20 definitely this year and then I would love to get back in the top 10.”
But while lauding the General’s determination to reclaim his star status and wishing him the very best, Norman reckons the top-10 will be beyond Gaultier.
“I wish Greg the very best of luck with it. If he were sitting opposite me right now, I’d shake his hand and say: ‘Good luck mate, but I’m sorry I don’t think you’re going to do it.’
“Nothing is impossible but, I would say, it’s highly improbable. I would also say that Greg only stands a 50/50 chance of making it back into the top 20.
“I know how tough it is to stay in the top 10 when you are getting into your mid late 30s and eventually what finished me was a wrist injury, I couldn’t shake at 36, that said when I called time I was still in the top 10.
Gregory Gaultier against Ali Farag at the 2018 U.S. Open
“With Greg, he is coming back from major knee surgery, he has just turned 38 and is ranked at 39 after his victory last week and that is a long way back even to make the top 20.”
While Gaultier’s fistful of six-thousand-dollar Challenger titles have boosted his ranking points and helped him climb back into the top-40, Norman says the acid test is still to come for the former World Champion: “I know that he has won two other tournaments at the Challenger level, three in total, so he is getting the matches under his belt, but these are $6,000 dollar tournaments.
“The type of points he will accumulate from these may help him climb back up the rankings initially. For Greg to make the top 20 and even think about the top 10, then we are talking maybe seven World Tour level tournaments where he has got be making good progress deep in the draw to get the type of points he will need.
“That type of progress could take him into his 40th year and that is a massive ask. So, the whole ranking points system will no doubt have a huge part to play in how Greg progresses.”
Speaking from experience, Norman admits that Gaultier is now facing a fine balancing act as he bids to complete another amazing entry in the squash history books: “On top of that there is a balancing act in terms of Greg’s body which he is constantly going to have to tread. A very fine line between reaching his optimum fitness and match sharpness and placing too much stress on his body and of course that right knee.
“At Challenger level Greg has been very comfortable but on the main tour it is a different scenario. Looking back to when I was coming to the end of my career at 36 and still in the top 10, I found that if I had a five game first round match, well I might make it through the next round but by the time we got to a last 16 or quarter final I was bust.
“The bottom line was I just couldn’t back it up anymore and hold three to four big matches together consecutively. In your early 20s your body is almost bomb proof but by your late 30s you need to be very careful with it, believe me.
“When I retired at 36, that was pretty unheard of. Stuart Davenport, who had been World No.3 when I was at No.2, retired at 25 and Jahangir, who I could never dislodge from No.1, called time at 29, so for me to make it through to 36 and still be in the top-10 when I retired is something, I am very proud of.”
Indeed, Gaultier’s progress at the elite PSA World Tour events has hit a second – round ceiling so far. At the CIB Black Ball Open a straight- games victory over Scotland’s Greg Lobban was followed up by 3-0 defeat to World No.7 Diego Elias.
While in Qatar Gaultier dispatched Spain’s Iker Pajares Bernabeu in a four game first round encounter before being bested in straight games by World No.6 Marwan ElShorbagy in the second round.
Norman added: “The other aspect here is that Gaultier is still a huge name in squash. He is a former World No.1; a former World Champion and he is a scalp.
“As I found at the end of my career the young guys really upped their game when they played me, they wanted my scalp and that meant these first round matches in the main draw were tough for me and as Greg is finding out they are going to be tough for him as well.
“There is no question that the young guys will want a piece of him big time and they will raise their level accordingly because playing Greg will be like a cup final for them.”
The former World No.2 also drew an interesting parallel between Gaultier’s French renaissance and the injury travails of tennis legend Roger Federer.
“You could perhaps compare Greg’s situation to Roger Federer in tennis. Federer has been out for almost a year and has had two knee surgeries and isn’t making it back for the Aussie Open in February, but the difference is that he was still in the top 4 when he had to stand down for his first surgery.
“So, I think it will, perhaps, be easier for him to make it back into the top level at tennis than Greg who has had to come back from a lot further back and of course you must factor in the heavier attrition rates of squash.”
Looking back Norman admitted that the moment when Father Time comes knocking and it finally dawns that the dread moment to hang the racket up has arrived is the toughest of the lot for any squash great: “It was one of the toughest calls I had to make when I finally called time at 36.
“In these days you used fax machines and I had my letter already written asking the PSA to withdraw me from the tournament draws I had coming up and also to scratch my name from the rankings. Then I hesitated and couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.
“So, I decided to sleep on it but when I got up the next day, I knew it was the right call and I pressed send on the fax machine and that was it, 16 years as a squash pro were gone. It was maybe the toughest call of my life, but I knew inside it was the right one.
“You know the alternative is continuing to grind through the tournaments, losing in a second round here, maybe making a quarter-final there, where you would had been in there challenging for every major title and that is a bitter pill to swallow.
“The flip side of that coin is that nothing replaces the highs of these big wins at the majors. Nothing, not coaching, or owning your own club. Like I was, Greg is almost married to squash, and he has now been a pro longer than I was.
“But huge credit to Greg he still really wants it and has that fire in him, and I wish him the very best.”