By RJ Mitchell
He was the father of the professional game, the ground-breaking pioneer of professional squash, who pushed the boundaries in terms of preparation, mentality, match-play, and drove promotion of our sport beyond anything that had ever been seen or contemplated before.
Now to mark his 80th birthday and the launching of his website www.jonahbarrington.com, the legend known simply as ‘Mr Squash’ to players all around the world, has granted a far reaching and revealing suite of interviews to PSA website in a in-depth look back at his stellar career.
In the first of this four-part series, the iconic Jonah Barrington will detail the defining rivalries that drove him to achieve squash immortality, recall the pinnacle of his garlanded career and provide a unique insight into what life in the twilight of the amateur era and the dawning of the brave new world of the pro game was like.
This unmissable series will detail Barrington’s unique relationship with the game’s most historic major title – the British Open – the tournament which more than any made his name and reputation and his delight at its return to the PSA World Tour schedule in August.
Barrington will also provide us with his all-time top five male players as he references fellow legends and dissects their strengths and weaknesses with his still super sharp recall and analysis of these greats of the game and why they deserve a place in squash Valhalla.
The series will conclude with Barrington’s assessment of the sport’s current stars and his thoughts on the PSA World Tour as ‘Mr Squash’ marks 80 not out with a fascinating dissection of the sport he bestrode as a colossus over almost three decades.
Yet in every great’s career there is a rivalry that provides the ultimate motivation to break down the barriers, push the body beyond normal feats of physical endurance and challenge aspects of mentality to discover minutiae to help achieve marginal gains that sway the balance of power.
For Barrington that rivalry was with Geoff Hunt: “My rivalry with Geoff was the preeminent of my career. Obviously, the sport in these days was very different to nowadays and circumstances dictated that you would only meet up with your main rivals three or four times at most.
“Things developed when the professional tour got going but at that early stage there may be three or four months between the biggest events, and this meant that it was almost like preparing for a boxing match.
“You would have a long period of putting in background work, focusing the mind on what would be required when you did meet up and always reminding yourself about the difficulties when you had last played and all the time remembering that your main rival, which was of course, Geoff, would be training.
“Over the years I then travelled to Australia to play the Australian Open so that I would be playing Geoff over there but there was huge gap before we would meet up again.”
During Barrington’s run of six British Open titles spanning 1967 to 1973 he was to face Hunt twice and it was the thought of these coming battles that drove Barrington to new depths of training intensity to ensure he would prevail over his greatest rival.
“As with many sports people, waking up tired, which is what happens when you train remorselessly, then there is a great temptation, given the voice in your head is telling you to go back to bed, to take it easy. Yet, then there was that stronger voice telling me: ‘Geoff will be training, he will be getting in another day’s work’.
“That was unbelievably motivating for me as he was technically exceptional, unbelievably athletic and incredibly formidable mentally and you knew all that when you were playing on court against him.
“With most players you were battling on a number of fronts but not in the same way mentally. It was a huge mental battle with Geoffrey as he was incredibly difficult to break down and I knew when I played him there had to be an erosion factor before he would start to wilt in any shape or form.
“The early part of any of our matches was always very difficult as he was wonderfully clinical, made very few unforced errors and so it was a battle waged over a long period that built up over many months as I knew I would be playing him in the British Open and that I would not cross swords with him for quite a while before that.
“Geoff’s mantra was to make it hard and fair, no quarter was asked for, but the match was always played within the spirit of the game and that is what happened every time I played Geoff Hunt.
“His natural instinct was to get on the ball as quickly as possible and he hunted around the middle of the court, literally, to keep the pressure on. There were and are relatively few players who hunt on a squash court, it has to be worked on and my game against Geoff was sensibly more defensive.
“Basically, I had to try and negate the effect of the power he had and to make him wait for the ball longer than he would like because it was almost suicidal to get the ball onto his racket quickly.
“So, in my mind regardless of the fact there were other very good Aussie players, Geoff was without doubt my foremost rival and that rivalry was on a different level to anyone else.”
Yet there were other rivals who still occupy a special place in Barrington’s golden recollection of yesteryear and the first of these was Abdelfattah Abou Taleb or AA Taleb as he was better known.
The Egyptian was the dominant force in squash in the mid-sixties having won the British for three consecutive seasons between 1964 and 1966, when the young tyro faced the master in the quarter-finals in 1967 as Barrington recalled: “I guess the first British Open with Taleb in the quarter final was an enormous psychological barrier to overcome as he had not been beaten in about three years and he was hugely confident.
“He had an extraordinary ability with the racket, and he demoralised players in a very short period of time. I saw him in one match against a wonderful Egyptian player and he gave him an 8 – point start, making no effort and then winning the game 10-8.
“He was absolutely mesmerising to watch in terms of what he could do with his racket. There have been great performers like Qamar Zaman but Taleb, well he had an extraordinary ability with his racket, and he came from a poor background, now most of the Egyptians today come from relatively comfortable backgrounds, not that they aren’t hungry.
“But Taleb had a real cold hunger, and he was an immense barrier for me to overcome and one that in doing so gave me a considerable boost.”
While the excellent documentary: ‘Jonah Barrington: Blood, Sweat & Squash’ which is available on SquashTV, delves into even more detail on these rivalries the great Hunt was not the only Aussie to cause Barrington consternation: “There were several Aussies who were mentally strong like Ken Hiscoe, but it was Cam Nancarrow who I found very difficult, in terms of style, to play,” revealed Jonah.
“In fact the press called him my bogey man as it was lefty versus lefty, southpaw going at it with southpaw.
“He was very smart, highly streetwise and naturally highly skilled and so that was a considerable rivalry but at the top end my main rivalry was with Geoff.”
Not surprisingly for Barrington the importance of rivalries in terms of pushing barriers and driving standards in any sport is clear and the squash immortal, who still maintains a forensic interest in all things of sporting importance, was keen to illustrate his point by referencing tennis: “A rivalry doesn’t necessarily have to be between two people. For instance, what we have seen in tennis is quite remarkable. It may be nearing the end but there is still the rivalry between Djokovic and Nadal and even still with Roger Federer.
“Although it is always difficult to call with Federer, as he is such a wonderful tennis player, and I would never suggest he will come to Wimbledon and won’t win it, but the likelihood is that time will tell.
“But that rivalry and of course with Andy Murray, and his performances in this fantastic era were astonishing. He was marginally less exceptional than the other three, if you want to put it that way but in any other circumstances, he would have won about 20-majors.
“So that rivalry was in the heart of it as well as he was in every semi-final, multiple finals and it was fantastic and it was more than one versus one, one great boxing match, two great fighters and those rivalries make pretty it all irresistible for fans and the media and to sell the sport.
“So, tennis has been extraordinary fortunate to have had those guys over so many years and squash would benefit from something like this of course and has done so. If there is a rivalry and an edge between two players there is nothing wrong with that.”
As if to illustrate this point, when it came to Barrington’s defining memory, a gladiatorial denouement that left all others in its sweat drenched wake, the incomparable 1972 British Open Final which once again pitted Barrington against Hunt, in what was to be their ultimate British Final, and saw Barrington prevail 9-7 in the fifth after inducing a full body cramp on the Aussie great that still, by his own admission, leaves Hunt sleepless, ranks above all else.
“In a way the British Open final in ’72 has to be that. I think that when we played that match it was a two – hour 13 – minute final and we had only about nine lets in the whole match and that was hand – in, hand-out scoring back then.
“You knew exactly where you were with Geoffrey, he never took an unfair advantage, and you knew it would be a remorseless process and if I had to play him every week, I would not have been able to gather all my resources to have the kind of success I had in one off matches.
“Geoff was like a robot. He very rarely moved poorly and always seemed to move well and if you are moving well on a squash court it is likely you will produce a pretty good game and I think I saw him, maybe half-a-dozen times uncomfortable and these were for different reasons. So, almost all of the time he was superbly smooth in his movement and almost robotic and his game flowed from it.
“Playing Geoff successfully I had to constantly keep my mind focussed on ways of avoiding the game developing freely as his movement was just so good and that would put me at a serious disadvantage.
“People would say to me that: ‘You are a great mover’ but with regard to Geoffrey Hunt well no I wasn’t! My objective was to make him play more my way than his. If we played his way, then to make it more difficult for him physically and to force him to generate the power as that is more tiring as if you give power to people, they can generate more and do so economically.
“It may sound easy, but it certainly wasn’t when you had to go over the two-hour mark. With Geoff he didn’t start to cramp until at least the third quarter of the second hour, certainly it would have been helpful if he had cramped after an hour but that wasn’t the case!
“It would come in the last quarter of the match, and it would happen and yes, he did have a problem at that stage in our ’72 final and I had to work awfully hard to make that happen, believe me!
“Indeed, this was most visible in that British Open final although in our Australian Open final in Melbourne in the fifth game he was virtually standing on one leg, and I can recall that because it was like I was playing a Stork! Geoffrey couldn’t actually get his racket up as he had so much cramp in his hand!
“But for me there is no player today that had the willpower on court that Geoff Hunt had, he would have collapsed rather than give a match away and he almost did so in that 1972 British Open final.”
For more information on the rerelease of Jonah’s fascinating three books: “Murder in the Squash Court’, ‘The Life of Jonah’ and ‘Jonah: The Official Autobiography’ please visit www.jonahbarrington.com.