At some point during his first round PSA World Squash Championships match against world No. 15 Gregoire Marche, Qatar’s No. 1 Abdulla Mohamed al-Tamimi lunges at a high ball and brings it down against the front wall. But it’s not enough to send the Frenchman scampering, and the ball continues in play.
Four rows back at the glass court is 72-year-old Geoff Hunt. His hands clasped between his knees, poker-faced, breaking into occasional whispers with Stewart Boswell, part of al-Tamimi’s coaching team, but nothing animated.
Fifty odd minutes later, al-Tamimi has moved into the second round of the World Championships, for only the second time in his career. In his post-victory conversation with the tournament compere, Andy Taylor, the 24-year-old admits how his coach doesn’t appreciate him playing the high balls even though he likes to, and while everyone around breaks into laughter, Hunt only has a wry smile at best.
A couple of days later, after a rather long chat on the grounds of Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex, Hunt, while watching world No. 1 Mohamed ElShorbagy and No. 11 Saurav Ghosal, speaks about how his father, Vic, told him not to show emotions at crucial moments.
“Moreover, as a coach, I look at game differently,” he says. “I am looking at angles that could have been taken, the position, the pace, the shot.” And all of that is happening in his calm head. Even an occasional ‘wow’ for a great shot… perhaps.
Hunt has seen al-Tamimi for the last 13 years, starting from his time at the Aspire Academy. From sneaking time every now and then to play football, instead of training for squash, to giving eventual champion Tarek Momen a scare in the third round of the World Championships earlier this month, al-Tamimi has come a long way.
And so has Hunt. Like his protégé, Hunt began playing squash at the age of 11. But not before he dabbled in tennis in Melbourne. While he doesn’t speak much about his tennis-playing days, Hunt’s eyes light up when he begins talking about squash, a game that has been with him for more than six decades.
“The greatest game of all time,” according to Hunt needs “a combination of physical strength, speed and endurance, tactical skills, racquet skills and good mental skills”. “It is like playing physical chess. You have to use your brain, have to be good under pressure, hell of a good game.”
If the chess analogy doesn’t work for you, how about boxing? “It is almost like you are hurting each other in a boxing match but without actually hitting each other. You are making them run. You are side-by-side with your opponent. You can feel it, smell them, it’s hard, contagious,” Hunt is animated unlike his calm demeanour at the glass court.
“Football was his (al-Tamimi’s) first love,” Hunt says.
But the former world No. 1 never had a conversation with his ward, despite running a similar course to his own.
“In fact, I went to the head coach of his football programme and I told him, ‘Look, he wants to play football’. I asked him ‘is he good enough for the football programme? Take him’. I am not going to stand in the boy’s way if that’s what his passion is,” says Hunt, who spent eight years at Aspire Academy from 2006 to 2014.
“I was happy he was playing squash because he had shown signs very early on that he could be a good player… (but) he was happy he could play football. It was a number of years before he finally started to gravitate towards squash and that was probably because he was very good at it, and when you get successful at something…”
Being an Aussie means that sport was all around Hunt. From his parents, Vic and Connie, to siblings, Bill and Patricia, the four-time Australian amateur champion and two-time Australian Open winner understood the value of sport and what winning did.
“It happened to me when I was younger. I was pretty successful quick and I could beat people, and that was satisfying and encouraging,” he says. “Abdulla, at 11, used to beat players who were 14!!!”
But there was no Professional Squash Association (PSA) during Hunt’s time, amateur sport was the name of the game, no prize money, and “you play because you love the game”.
“I was only 16, and I was just outside the top four. For experience, my state association, which was Victoria, said they would pay for me to go to England. And at my local club, they said ‘Look, Geoff’s going away. How about giving him some money?’ And club members raised 50 pounds, which may not seem like too much money to you now, but it was quite a bit then,” he remembers.
Spend enough time and a conversation with Hunt transforms into a masterclass in squash history.
“Egypt and Pakistan have always had good players, before Australians came on to the scene. Mahmoud Karim of Egypt, Hashim Khan, Azam Khan, (Abdelfattah) Aboutaleb, these boys went to England and dominated the game,” he says.
“But when Australia developed through the 60s, and the courts, and people, we became very strong. My friends, Ken Hiscoe, Cam (Cameron) Nancarrow, Dick Carter, we won three (amateur) world team championships in a row biennial, and I won the individuals.”
And then Englishman Jonah Barrington turned professional. Mr. Squash, as he was known, had won six British Open titles, twice by beating Hunt in the final, by 1973.
“He decided to make it a profession. There was no money in it, but he had to try and get sponsorships, and various other things, play exhibition matches,” Hunt says. “He planted a seed (in my head).”
But the son of a marketing man wasn’t going to do anything without some due diligence of his own. He had his son, Ben, from his first marriage, before he had even turned pro, and Sarah a few years later.
“We (Hunt and his father) sat down and did a feasibility study of sorts. And we looked at it, and said ‘yeah, probably in the first year, if we did certain things, I could make four times of what I would if I was working in the industry’,” reminisces Hunt, who had a degree in chemistry.
“That sounded pretty good to me. I can get sponsorships, exhibition matches, etc. I got a manager. And then I got my friend Ken Hiscoe to form a partnership so we could then play exhibitions. It developed from there,” says Hunt, who was 24 when he turned pro, the same age as al-Tamimi today.
Hunt talks fondly of his trips to England with his son, Ben. “I travelled to England for about a third of the year (with his son). I would say that give me some work for him to do and I shall make him do. Unfortunately, I split up with my first wife, and then I didn’t see them as regularly as I liked. But since I got quite a bit of time with them when they were young, I still have a good rapport with them and catch up with them even now.”
Barrington, Hunt and Hiscoe then convinced others to turn pro, and formed International Squash Professionals Association (ISPA), the predecessor to PSA.
“We encouraged the tournaments to put money in otherwise you will not get the best players,” he says. “At the time we had Egyptians, Pakistanis, Australians, English, South Africans as the main players. You now see places like France, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, their players coming in at the world level now. But there were none of those countries in squash then. The game started off and it became really strong.”
Hunt acknowledges that today it is pretty tough for players to turn pro.
“There are not huge amounts of money in it and you have got to really have the desire to play the sport and enjoy it, otherwise you will never be successful, no matter what,” he says.
“The standard was reasonably high (then) but there was no depth. Today we get to the first round of the world championships, there are lots of good players, and one can’t even get in. We started off with reasonable money at the time. Perhaps it hasn’t grown exponentially. But money has increased but more of it has been going around, going down (the draw). In terms of women’s squash it’s improved quite a bit. Many tournaments have been paying equal prize money.”
Recently, the women’s world champion Nour El Sherbini was paid a third more than what Momen received for his first world championship title.
“I think in a country like America, which has a lot more money, it is being seen as an Ivy League game, being played through a lot more universities, and there are a lot of influential people, and is being played in big clubs there, the money has started to get into the sport there,” says Hunt, who bought a car from his “7-8 thousand dollars” winnings at one of his four world championship titles.
Hunt believes that the sport will gain a lot if it became part of the Olympic Games. “It would get a major impetus if it makes it to the Olympics. It is one of the things that’s pure sport, fantastic event. If squash was in the Olympics, it would improve the profile of the sport, and I think one day it will happen. They have tried really hard and gotten very close to getting accepted. But whether or not it will happen, we don’t know but when it happens it will be a huge boost to the profile of the game. I would have probably loved playing the Olympics,” he says.
Through the conversation Hunt mentions how lucky he feels he is. “I have gone through the era of top amateur squash, into professional squash, the world championships, and helped establish the world tour. We used to run the World Championships for goodness sakes, as an association. I was with Jonah and Ken and we were responsible in setting up the computer ranking systems. We took information from tennis and saw how they did it. It has been good, I have enjoyed that, seen the game flourish,” he says.
The era Hunt was part of meant that he briefly went up against arguably the best player of all time, Jahangir Khan, among others.
“There were a couple of Pakistanis – Qamar Zaman, Mohibullah Khan, Hiddy Jahan, and Gogi Alauddin, and then there was me – the top five players in the world, believe it or not. So we played through an era from there right through until towards the end of my career, and then came the young Jahangir Khan. He was now my best rival,” Hunt says.
“There is no doubt about it in my mind, when you had Jahangir Khan and Jansher, and Rodney Martin, and some of the other top Australians like Chris Dittmar, that was a very good era. I think that era was at a higher level than when I was playing.
“You can always argue (as to what era or who was better) or we can just look at the records against all the contemporaries. And there is no doubt that Jahangir’s record is the best. Was he better than Jansher? Sometimes I didn’t think so. But his record proves…,” he says of the man who won six World Open titles and record 10 British open titles. Jansher, on the other hand, won the World Open a record eight times, and British Open six times.
“To get to the top, he (Jahangir) had to find a way to beat me. He was an aggressive, hard-hitting, attacking player based on the back of the court. And so I quite enjoyed playing against him, it was a challenge to me.”
The first major final Hunt went up against Jahangir, it lasted two hours and 15 minutes, with Hunt winning the last of his eighth British Opens in four games in 1981. Seven months later, 17-year-old Jahangir began his five-and-a-half-year unbeaten streak with Hunt as his first scalp in the World Open final.
“I was so disappointed that I got injured and I couldn’t keep playing,” says Hunt, who retired a few months later. “We had some really good battles. I knew I could match him if I could… he was lifting my standard up. But then I had to stop and that was frustrating to me. He was a fabulous player and difficult to beat, but there were certain ways you could go about it.”
In 1985, Hunt began his coaching career when he joined the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). His first batch of wards, five of those went on to become world champions, including 1991 men’s champion Rodney Martin and five-time women’s champion Sarah Fitz-Gerald.
“I got them at a stage where they were already developed by their own coaches to a reasonable level. But then my role was to take them beyond that and further,” says Hunt, who worked with AIS till 2003, before making a move to Aspire in 2006.
By 2014, al-Tamimi had emerged as a brilliant talent, but having stayed away from his wife and son for so long, Hunt decided it was time to go home to Gold Coast.
“It wasn’t fair on my wife and the family, as much as I enjoyed what I was doing here, having a lovely time here, some of the best experiences I have had working and meeting people here, learning about the region. It was a unique situation for me, and most rewarding for me,” says Hunt.
“But before I left, I wanted to make sure that Abdulla had support beyond the school, because (otherwise) you can’t get to the top of squash. It is very difficult to go from junior to senior squash. So we spoke at the academy and I managed to secure for him a post-graduate scholarship programme, which has been fantastic and he has continued on,” he adds.
“They asked me if I would stay on and mentor him, and I said I would stay if Abdulla wants me to stay. He said ‘I would like you to do it’. And so I continued...”
However, without a big enough set-up back in Australia, Hunt turned to his former student, Martin, for help. “Rodney was very much similar to Abdulla. Good shotmaker, but not always picking the right time to play his shots. Rodney and I think a lot alike about the game. And he has a good set-up in America to train,” Hunt says. “And Abdulla is getting better and better.”
Al-Tamimi won his first PSA title in Atlanta in 2016, before winning the Australian Open, a title even Hunt won back in 1980 and ’81, and the Qatar Circuit III at home. His biggest win so far has been the the Malaysian Open victory last year. He even reached the third round at the 2017 World Championships. Al-Tamimi rose to 23rd in the world rankings a year ago.
“I had hoped that he would get to the level he is at now a couple of years earlier, but he is still being progressive,” Hunt says. “(But) Every now and then the shin got to him and it would affect his performances. So that was holding him back. He has had an operation now, and went six months out without playing,” which explains al-Tamimi’s fall to 47 in the rankings.
“But it’s really good he has had it done, and there are no restrictions in his legs now, and that’s fabulous.
“Speed and racquet skills, are two of his biggest strengths. It’s better than I can do, the way he controls the ball. I was lucky to be quick, but he is extraordinarily fast on the court. And you combine those two things, what more do you want.”
Al-Tamimi’s matches at the 2019 World Championships have only pleased Hunt.
“I think he controlled the ball the best against Marche (in the first round),” Hunt says. “(Against Momen) he played better squash because he had to. You have forced the player to a higher tempo and he was playing a better player. So he had to up the ante for some of those games, played extraordinarily well. I haven’t seen him control the ball that well backhand side… that was fabulous… I love seeing that.”
The satisfaction of his ward playing at a level he would be proud of means Hunt has decided to step back from his coaching duties with the Qatari.
“He has got to a level that I am satisfied in my mind now that he is on the path to the top of the squash. Whether he becomes a world champion or not is another matter, but the fact he is good enough to play at that level, has embraced the game, has a good coach and a set-up in Rodney, I feel my job’s done,” Hunt says.
Not a “spring chicken” anymore, Hunt feels it’s “probably time for me to do a few more things”.
“With my current wife, she was going to come to Doha (back in 2006) with my son (Wesley) but it was the wrong time. He had two more years of school to do. So, in the end, my wife and I decided that lets not do this. And my wife and I had a long distance relationship. I would only see her for three months. That’s the only time I think my family suffered a bit with my younger son, that was a shame…,” says Hunt.
“(Wesley) did come to Doha (though). A good tennis player, he represented Gold Coast in tennis. He actually played on this court over here,” Hunt says pointing at a practice court adjacent to the centre court at the Khalifa complex.
After over six decades in the game, stepping back may not be easy.
“I will never move away from the sport completely. My interest, with following Abdulla, will keep me connected. I won’t be as involved with him, but I am sure I will be talking to (Rodney) often for a long time to come, particularly while he is still working with Abdulla,” he says.
“Squash became my life, my job, my income-earner. I am not a hugely wealthy person, but I have enough money to enjoy a reasonable life. And I have had the satisfaction of doing something that I love every day. Training’s hard-work, but I loved it. I will continue, and I will still have that joy, watching and seeing people play. I don’t think I will miss it…
“I like coaching, I can coach someone no matter what their age is, whether they are 80 or 8.”
Hunt reckons al-Tamimi will be good at coaching too when the time comes.
“He certainly has got a good brain for sport. He can talk you through a game of squash like you wouldn’t believe. He watches, understands it. The trouble I have had with him is that he wouldn’t always apply it to himself,” something that al-Tamimi himself admitted during one of his conversations with Taylor at the recent World Championships.
While most coach-pupil relationships have been seen as the one between a parent and a child, Hunt calls al-Tamimi his friend. “He has matured into a nice young man. I don’t think I would have been able to do stuff if he wasn’t like the way he is. If I felt I didn’t like his principles, or the way he was, I wouldn’t have done it. Everyone is not perfect, but I know I wouldn’t have been able to continue for so long with Abdulla if he wasn’t the right person, and he has been a lovely young man. I really enjoyed. That’s why I call him a friend,” says Hunt.
So if not the high balls, what shot would he rather see al-Tamimi play?
“I love seeing players taking their opponents up to the front of the court and under extreme pressure drive the ball down the wall from the front position for a winner. That to me is the ultimate shot in squash. To me that is the perfect shot.”
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