He will be 35 before the end of 2017 but Gregory Gaultier’s twilight sporting years have been among the best of his career.
The enigmatic Frenchman became the oldest world number one male squash player this April amid a stunning winning run of 27 consecutive matches.
Of those, he’d only dropped a jaw-dropping six games, adding six calendar year titles to give him 34 in a glittering career.
Since finally lifting a coveted World Open crown in 2015 at the fifth time of asking, it would have been easy for Gaultier to walk away. He even contemplated it after an injury-plagued 2016 season.
Along with Nick Matthew, 36, and James Willstrop, 33, Gaultier is among the elder statesmen of men’s squash today, a game which has been gaining in popularity, leading naturally to the emergence of new talents.
But while Karim Gawad, brothers Mohamed and Marwan El Shorbagy, Ali Farag and Fares Dessouky forge their own paths and write new chapters for the game, Gaultier says he’s not ready to close the book on his own story just yet.
“I’m 34, No1. I could retire as the No1 of course but at the moment I don’t want to retire,” said Gaultier, whose near flawless year came to a shuddering halt at Dubai Opera earlier this month as he lost all three games at the season-ending PSA World Series Finals to relinquish his grip on the trophy he’d won 12 months earlier in the UAE.
“I don’t see myself turning the page yet. I’m still enjoying these types of moments and I want to give it a go for maybe another year, or two, or three. There’s still a few more chapters left to write.
“I know squash is on the way up and I don’t want to miss these types of moments, where we are at this fantastic event. We have had good events in the past but not as well organised as this so I want to be part of this and then we will see how it goes.”
And, the final award, the Men's Player of the Season is Greg Gaultier 🇫🇷 pic.twitter.com/n2AbekGPqa— PSA World Tour (@PSAWorldTour) June 5, 2017
English legend Matthew is also among the male elite, ranked number four in the world, so Gaultier sees no need for the old men to retire just yet, although he does want to go out on top when it finally is time.
“I don’t want to retire far down the rankings either. I want to retire at the top,” he added. “I still feel in good shape. Nick is too and he wants to keep playing until the Commonwealth Games (in 2018). Maybe after still, I don’t know.”
Gaultier admits he was “very average” as he was ravaged by injuries in 2016, including an ankle issue that ruled him out for two months. But he battled back to win in Dubai to close out the campaign – his third World Series crown.
And, after a run of four successive failures in the final of the World Open over an eight-year period (2006, 2007, 2011 and 2013) before finally triumphing in 2015, he admits plans of retirement were shelved as he knew he’d been through worse.
“There were a lot of emotions. And a big relief,” Gaultier recalls of a straight sets 3-0 triumph over Egypt’s Omar Mosaad in the United States, having earlier tasted defeat against Matthew (twice), Amr Shabana and his epic maiden world final loss to Australia’s David Palmer in 2006.
Gaultier had led 2-0 in the final and was five match balls up in the decider before Palmer somehow stormed back to inflict a psychologically damaging 3-2 defeat on the then 23-year-old.
“Afterwards I felt like I’d been carrying around a big bag of weights for the last 10 years,” he says.
“Every time you come into a tournament you feel like that so I had to find a way to go to the event and just put my focus on one thing, not look at the big picture like I have to win.
“That’s what I tried to change and I went there with less pressure and I managed to play the crucial points really well. It was all about focus. And I managed to do better than in the past.”
Asked how he kept coming back and maintained belief in himself after 2006 was followed by three more final defeats, Gaultier has one word.
“It’s all about perseverance,” he added. “There was one or two I should have won and of course I was disappointed, but as long as you don’t win, you have flashbacks, which put you down. But you have to see what you can take from these losses.
“I have a chance every year to win. I managed to deal with my emotions better and this is what really helped me win in 2015. I deal better now with my focus, concentration and when I’m really focused on tactics and what I have to do on the court, I don’t get distracted.
“This is where I really perform at my best and where it’s really hard to beat me.”
To keep him on the court and in that winning form, Gaultier’s training regime has changed dramatically, perhaps not surprisingly, during his advancing years.
He added: “There are lots of things I was doing in the past that I’m not doing now, that I’ve changed. Let’s say some fitness work I changed.
“For example I used to run a lot and now I do more bike. Less impact. Not as intense. Lots of stretching, yoga and physio work, recovery.
“That is really the key between tournaments. You have to train smart. I spend a lot of hours on quality rather than quantity. When I was younger I was so intense and now I’m more efficient to try and preserve and save my body.”
The man known as the ‘French General’ has plundered trophy after trophy this year. Of the 2016/17 season’s eight PSA World Series tournaments, the Epinal-born Gaultier has won three, including three in a row with the Windy City Open, British Open and El Gouna International from February-April.
With that elusive World Open crown finally lifted in 2015, there might not seem much else left to conquer, but while he’s on top, the General is still formulating battle plans.
“I want to win as many events as possible, like this one (World Series Finals),” he said. “People remember only winners of finals or world championships. These are my targets throughout the year. I always try to perform in any tournament.
“If or when I stop of course you will have regrets for certain things, but as long as you give your best every time, (you can be satisfied). You can’t be 100 per cent every tournament, it’s impossible.
“Maybe only once a year you are at 100, other times 98, 95 or 80 or 50, but you have try hard not to have regrets. That’s what I’m doing now, especially in the latter stages of my career.
“I don’t want targets and to think ‘why didn’t I try harder there’, or ‘why didn’t you do this and this’. I try even if I’m tired or have aches and pains, to prepare myself, to bring my best. Sometimes people can be better than you on the day but you have to try and find a solution to win.”
The celebrations were raging along with a debate which will never be resolved. Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins had become the first team for nearly 20 years to retain the Stanley cup.
A spirited Nashville rearguard had been broken along with Music City’s collective hearts thanks to the brilliance and sheer bloody mindedness of skipper Crosby , who bagged a goal and six assists in a tremendous series.
Undoubtedly the finest player in the world right now, another gold star added to a continually glimmering resume for the two time Olympic champ.
But as all the platitudes flew about following his team’s coronation and his award of series MVP for the second year on the spin (winning successive Conn Smythe gongs in an era when the salary cap was supposed to inject parity across the board is some achievement), one Pittsburgh newspaper decided to just throw it out there: Who’s the greatest North American sportsman? Crosby or Tom Brady. One wears skates. The other throws deflated balls.
At one point LeBron James and Mike Trout, the best players in the NBA and MLB respectively, were also thrown into the mix. It’s a rubbish debate. Same sport? Okay. Yet trying to compare and contrast the merits of James and the Cavs with Crosby and the Pens is a waste of time.
We are, however, in a time where former Irish plumbers turned mixed martial artists are getting the opportunity to become boxers for one night only, so perhaps a smidgen of credence should be applied.
All aforementioned athletes are superstars. Brilliant performers who’ve been there and proved themselves. Yet the ice hockey pantheon has two long-term residents in the peerless Wayne Gretzky (below) and Mario Lemieux. Two absolute cast-iron legends.
Sidney Crosby: 3 Stanley Cup wins, 2 Olympic gold medals, 1 World Championship gold medal and 1 World Junior Championship gold medal pic.twitter.com/SPXygUAa7g— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 12, 2017
Is Crosby on course to join them? The franchise’s official Twitter have no doubts , dubbing their leader the ‘GOAT’.
Outsiders will look at the numbers and nod approvingly. Speak to those inside the game and the answer is strikingly different.
“Do I wish I had the talent that Sid has? Of course, but to real hockey players, I feel there needs to be an entire package to call someone the greatest, “ one former pro told me. “Many outsiders probably think he deserves that title, but I’m pretty sure you would find a different opinion among hockey players.
“There is a lot of talk about the protection he receives from referees, and the favorable calls that he get “He is strong, and he find a way to win. He is a leader on his team.
“A guy like Gretzky, he was so well respected across the entire league because of his sportsmanship on and off the ice, on top of his incredible work ethic and talent “I think Crosby’s potential to be the greatest ever could still come to fruition if his attitude changes.”
The social media comedians had a field day – a photoshopped picture with Crosby holding a massive ref’s whistle aloft instead of the gargantuan Stanley Cup trophy certainly tickled me. Perhaps it’s because he’s the best, the most successful, the star man.
This Preds fan has a message for Sidney Crosby! pic.twitter.com/tNpk07l2J5— WSMV-TV, Nashville (@WSMV) June 11, 2017
Crosby’s peers , however, have been outspoken. “Crosby cheats,” said San Jose’s Logan Couture following Pittsburgh’s Game Two win last year after a face-off row flared up .
“He gets away with it.” Bending the rules isn’t a crime yet it can blur the notion of sporting perfection. “For him to win three Cups puts him amongst the greats of the game,” said Penguins owner Lemieux after watching his team bag glory in Nashville’s own backyards following that dramatic, late Game Six win.
Whether the Canadian ,who could also land an overall NHL MVP award, will become the best ever remains to be seen. Yet looking at images of a crazy pool party celebration at his mansion last week, I don’t think he cares.
Five-time Sodi World Series (SWS) UAE champion Atef Al Barwani sped back into form on Monday night in round two of the Senior Cup at Dubai Kartdrome.
After an incredible run of five dominant years in the SWS ended in 2015, local karting legend Al Barwani had been out of the spotlight for the past year. Now it appears the Emirati is back on top form.
In race one, Al Barwani worked his way up to the leading pack, waiting for an opportunity to strike.
He said: “I was a bit lucky because two drivers in front were fighting so I said, ‘Let me just wait until the last lap because I know something is going to happen’.”
He took advantage of the scuffle to dive ahead on turn two, taking the lead and holding on until the chequered flag, just 0.652 seconds ahead of defending Ramadan Challenge champion Rami Azzam.
Race Two featured a reverse grid for the top 15 drivers of race one, which put Al Barwani and Azzam in the middle of the grid. This did little to deter either driver, as they picked their way through the field and toward the front.
Romaldo Labrooy also had a great run, moving from eighth on the grid and into the lead. He got clear of Azzam and Al Barwani and glided in for the race win, crossing the finish line 3.484 seconds in front of Azzam, with Al Barwani another 2.055 seconds back in third place.
After the points were tallied from both races, Al Barwani’s total of 73 points gave him a one-point victory over Azzam on 72 points. Labrooy earned third place with 67 points.
In the Masters category of the Senior Cup, Dario Rubio was outstanding in both races, finishing the night on 52 points to take top class honours, three points clear of Mohammed Ismail in second place with 49, with Gianluca Elmosi taking third on 44 points.
Competing against the top international junior racers at the 2017 SWS World Finals last month put Kamal Agha in top form for his return to Dubai. Despite a mediocre result in qualifying, Agha went two-for-two in the Junior Cup, taking both race wins on the night.