As he made his journey from the squash venue to the athlete’s games village in Hangzhou, Saurav Ghosal’s mind was blank. He says he doesn’t know how he plans to celebrate even though has more than enough reason to.
Around his neck is a silver medal in the men’s singles squash competition that he won on Thursday. It will join the gold medal already in his room, which he won in the men’s team event a few days earlier.
Immediately after the game, he only planned on heading to the dining hall. “I just want to get something to eat. Then I want to get some sleep,” he tells Sportstar. There’s nothing planned even beyond that. “I’ve got no idea what I’m going to do. I will wake up and see what there is to do,” he says.
Ghosal hasn’t always felt this way. In the past, there had always been an answer. He had to play squash. Now he’s not quite sure. “It’s a difficult question to answer. Things are very raw right now. It’s going to be difficult to continue. I know that. Time is not on my side. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he says.
Hangzhou was Ghosal’s sixth Asian Games – more than any other member of the Indian contingent competing here. He first competed at Busan back in 2002 as a 16-year-old. He won his first medal four years later in Doha. In Hangzhou, Ghosal at 37, is the senior most in the squash squad. The silver he won in the men’s singles is his 9th overall – more than any other Indian man.
When he looks back at his career, Ghosal says he’s been blessed. “I’ve been privileged to do this for so long. The first time I played for the Indian senior team was in the 2002 Asian Games team. To be honest, I was just so happy to make the Indian team back then. I was just chuffed. At that point. If you had told me I was going to do what I did, I would have bitten my right hand off, given it to you and thanked you very much,” he says.
While he has more Asian medals than any man in India, Ghosal admits there are some he didn’t get. “There are a couple of medals I wish I could have changed the colour of. I would have wanted a singles gold,” says Ghosal, who nonetheless has won gold medals in the men’s team events from Incheon as well as Hangzhou.
He’s come very close to an individual medal too, finishing with a silver in 2014 and 2022. In Incheon, he was up two games to nothing before losing in five to Kuwait’s Abdullah Al-Muzayen while on Thursday, he took the first game against Malaysia’s Ng Eain Yow before losing the next three.
With no guarantee he will have another shot at that elusive singles title, Ghosal admits he will have to live without it. “Sometimes in life, you can’t have it all. I’ll have to deal with that. I have to feel grateful for what else I have in life,” he says.
There are other things to be grateful for. “The journey has been unbelievable. I had to put in a lot of work over a lot of years to make it happen. Over a lot of time, I’ve been able to meet and work with a lot of brilliant people. These are relationships that I think will stand the test of time,” he says.
It’s those relationships that perhaps Ghosal treasures the most. “When I look back at these Asian Games, I would say winning the team gold was huge. But what was also special was just being with everyone. Mahesh (Mangaonkar) had been out of the squash scene for a long amount of time. I spoke to him a lot to get him back. I think I got him back because I asked him to play for me. I told him this might be the last time I play, and I need you by my side. And then he came back. That was special. These are the memories that will stay. The loss (in the men’s singles final) will sting, but there’s a lot to be grateful for,” he says.
With a career that’s extended past its third decade now, Ghosal says there have been such stings and many moments where he contemplated walking away from it all. “Sport can be very cruel. When you are in a low, it feels like there’s no way to come out. There were times when I felt I could stop soon. After I lost in the second round of the Commonwealth Games I seriously wondered if I should stop. That was tough. I was very disillusioned. That’s when I seriously considered my options. I didn’t want to play for the sake of playing. I wanted to play at the highest level. But I persevered, and I’m glad I did. Sport gave me everything that I had. I wouldn’t be here without it,” he says.
Ghosal is still playing strongly. He’s currently ranked world number 18, down from his peak of World number 10, but thinks he’s in some aspects playing better than he ever was.
“In terms of preparation. I don’t think I have been better prepared for this Asian Games than I ever was. I had a mission one year out. I wanted to win the team and individual gold. The individual gold didn’t happen, but overall I prepared well. I envisaged what I had to do mentally and physically. That process was something I enjoyed. I’ve been training with David Palmer, Malcolm Wilstrom and (psychologist) Gayatri Vartak, and trying to become the best player I could be. I feel I’m getting better every day, and even the people around me think, that I’m physically and mentally a lot better. Coupled with my experience, I think I’m playing some of the best squash of my life,” he says.
The fact that he thinks he’s still capable of mixing it up with the best is perhaps what he thinks might hypothetically make him stick around. “I have the Asian and Commonwealth medals, but if I had one goal that I wanted to achieve that would be to make the top 5 in the world. If I do keep going that’s the target that will keep me going,” he says.
But that decision is for another day. “I just want to spend some time with my family for now,” he says.
Ghosal says he would be at peace regardless of what fork in the road he takes. “If this is my last Asian Games, I know I can walk into the sunset, proud I gave my best and did my best for India. And while I did my best for my country, I did a little bit for myself along the way,” he says.