By RJ Mitchell
Gregory Gaultier believes Paul Coll’s triumph at the CIB Black Ball Open will have provided him with a massive confidence boost as he chases the No.1 ranking.
The New Zealander became the first male player to taste victory in Egypt since Gaultier captured the 2017 El Gouna International title.
That victory, in which the ‘French General’ gave a young Coll his marching orders in a four-game quarter-final, helped propel Gaultier back to the No.1 ranking for an impressive fifth time.
Recently retired from the PSA World Tour, the legendary Frenchman continues to take a keen interest in the evolvement of those he left behind in action at the elite level of the game and Gaultier has no doubt that Coll has given himself the very best platform to make a real challenge on Ali Farag’s World No.1 spot in the New Year.
The 2015 World Champion said: “It’s never simple to beat the Egyptians in Egypt as they are used to winning anyway and it seems they are even better on their own soil. So it will probably give Paul another massive confidence boost going into 2022 and for sure it gives him even more belief.
“2017, when I won El Gouna, was when I had my run and I won six tournaments in a row, so I was going to Egypt with confidence and winning there gave me wings.
“For Paul, he had just won Canary Wharf and has also had the big win at the British Open and he is trying to go for the No.1 ranking and that is another thing that can be in the back of his mind. Sometimes you can have a little pressure with that, but you have to put it to the side and focus on the game.
Gregory Gaultier celebrates his 2015 World Championship triumph
“So I think Paul did well and winning the Black Ball in Egypt is huge for him going forward, there is no doubt.”
Much has been made of the evolvement of Coll’s game, under coach Rob Owen, in terms of the height and width he utilises to defend and the extra layers of attacking dexterity at the front of the court that now keep the Kiwi’s rivals on their heels as he selects the killer shot from a burgeoning arsenal of strokes.
This is something that Coll’s former foe Gaultier has been fascinated by: “Paul has improved a lot in his game. He has always had amazing physical abilities and has trained hard for his whole career but now he has evolved his game quite a lot and has more tools in his shot selection. That has made him a more complete player these days.
“Paul is always tough to beat no matter who he plays. So with the tools he has added it has made him a much better player and he uses his speed really well going to the front corners.
“He is using the straight drop and has a little cross court low kill on the forehand and the trickle boast on the backhand side, so he is developing his game and using his speed with his shot selection and that helps him to win more points.
“Against the Egyptians, who like to play non-stop in the four corners, Paul is managing now to be aggressive with his shot selection. That is why he is moving from quarter finals to semis and then into finals and now winning major tournaments.”
But Coll’s back-to-back victories in London and Cairo mean that he will rock up in New York for the Tournament of Champions in January with a target firmly on his back as the man to beat.
That, Gaultier believes, will provide another interesting marker if Coll’s journey is destined to take him to the No.1 ranking in 2022: “It is different going in as the favourite as you are the target and people want to beat you. For sure, it is mainly easier to be the outsider and you go into the big matches with everything to win and nothing to lose.
Gaultier at the 2020 Black Ball Open
“So, it is tougher for Ali every time he steps on the court, he has to defend his position as No.1 compared to if he were at No.2 or No.3 where there is less stress for the guys ranked below him.
“So it is all about your mentality and how you approach these tournaments to get the balance to be able to play free without thinking too much. At that level, everyone has great fitness, but at the top mental strength is what makes the difference and your ability to deal with these pressure situations.
“Also, when you think too much about the rankings you can lose your focus, so you must put your energy into your routine, your game and your tactics and not think about the bigger picture of going No.1.
“Okay, it can also be on the other side and it gives you a lot of motivation but it can be a big stress factor and you just have to keep your energy in the right place.”
From his Prague base where he is still competing in the European club game, the sport’s oldest ever World No.1 has no doubt that while making it to the top of the pile is tough, staying at the apex of the professional game is even tougher.
The three-time British Open champion said: “I was up and down in my career, it happened five times that I went to No.1 and then dropped to No.2 or No.3 and then had to fight back. So it is tough to stay there for a consistent period as everyone you play against is trying their best to beat you and get to the top.
“As well as this, you don’t know how the other players are and if they have little physical issues that are a problem as some people can turn up at events with niggles. What is vital to stay at No.1 as long as possible is to try and stay injury free.
“To do that you have to do a lot of prevention work but sometimes there are no rules and anything can happen with the body.
“Right now, the competition is tough between all these guys and it is nice to see the change in the positions at the top and the change in the winners at the big tournaments with Paul winning three times, Diego [Elias] winning in Qatar, Ali, Mohamed [ElShorbagy], [Fares] Dessouky, [Mostafa] Asal or [Karim Abdel] Gawad.
Gaultier (right) takes on Paul Coll (left)
“So it is more attractive than one player winning everything and for me I like it with the way the competitions is now.”
The charismatic Frenchman was keen to end the interview with a seasonal shout-out to the loyal supporters of the game: “I’d just like to wish a merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone at PSA, all the players and fans as well and of course a very good 2022.”