All you have to do is mention the name, Geoff Hunt, and squash fans old and new rave about the man’s sheer genius. Arguably, one of Australia’s all-time greatest athletes, and perhaps its best men’s squash player of all time. We recently caught up with the squash legend himself.
Read part 1 of our 2-part conversation with Geoff Hunt, where we hear his insights into playing against the likes of Jonah Barrington and Qamar Zaman, the arrival of Jahangir Khan, Egypt’s dominance of the game today and his coaching career in Qatar. For part-2 click here.
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Zushan Hashmi: So what are you up to these days? And how has life been during the pandemic?
Geoff Hunt: Well, it’s been rather quiet, to be honest. I finished my overseas coaching at the end of last year with Abdullah Al Tamimi from Qatar and I’ve been at home since.
I’ve been a man of leisure in some respects, playing golf twice a week and also been keeping myself fit and doing the odd coaching session here and there, but not really that much of it.
There have also been a few odd games of squash as well during the pandemic when the opportunity arose. Now that things have opened up a bit in Queensland, we’re able to at least play a bit and lead a relatively normal life and I can still play golf, which is nice.
Moving onto your career, when you played the game it was a very interesting time, in that you dominated against several top Pakistani squash players and then Jahangir Khan appeared on the scene. Could you tell me a bit about what it was like being at the center of that transition period and era?
Geoff Hunt: It was fabulous from my point of view when I started off, squash wasn’t really a professional sport, Jonah Barrington was the only one who was really a professional and apart from him, perhaps Mohammed Yasin and AbouTaleb too. There was no real tournament pay or prize money.
So, I was at the very start of the professional era, when the likes of Jonah, a few Aussies, a few Egyptians and Gogi Alauddin and Hiddy Jahan came through from Pakistan. It was a fantastic era to play in and I think I enjoyed trying to compete against people over a period of extended years.
Regarding Jahangir [Khan], I saw him at a very young age, when he was just 16 and he had won the World Amateur Championships. I was coaching the Australian team at the championships.
At that stage, the top two Pakistanis were Qamar Zaman and Mohibullah Khan, who I’ve had real battles with over several years. When Jahangir came up and I asked them about him, they said, “yeah, he’s a couple of years away” and, I’ll tell you, within two years he was right up there.
By then, both Qamar and Mohibullah weren’t as competitive as they used to be. I’m not sure why, but I think they were not putting as much time into it. Mohibullah also had a few injury problems with his knees, and I was finding it to be that I didn’t have any major issues on my hands.
However, when Jahangir entered, it was a different battle and I could see how good he was, but I didn’t underestimate him because I knew how difficult he was going to be to play. We had some fantastic battles and for me; I think for those two to two-and-a-half years; we were ahead of everyone else, and it was a constant challenge to see who was going to win, and I was really enjoying that aspect of playing.
It was an exciting time because I had played against Qamar and Mohibullah, and then there was this new kid on the block and by goodness was he good! It was fantastic to play against him at that stage. I don’t think there was much between us, each of us had wins against each other and personally, I was extremely disappointed because that’s when my injuries started and eventually; I had to withdraw because of the back injury and my hips.
That was by far the most frustrating thing as I was loving the contest. And honestly, there’s nothing better than when someone comes up, like Jahangir, and challenges you, it excites you, and I think it was also good for the game.
I was, eventually, disappointed that I couldn’t go on for another couple of years and try to hold him out as long as I would have liked to, because he was good and was going to be a champion.
And from that era, how would you rate some players you had battles with, including the Pakistani trio, the top Egyptians, Brits and Australians? In terms of their stroke play.
Geoff Hunt: Look, there’s no doubt about it. The best guy with the best hands had the best strokes, Qamar Zaman. He was phenomenal. It was hard to get someone who could hit the ball more precisely than he could. He was fabulous.
Another person whom I thought had great ball control was AbouTaleb, whom I only played against at the end of his career. I was fortunate to play him in my first ever British Open, which I won, and honestly, I couldn’t believe how much control he had when he was playing. At that stage, his fitness was no good, so he would never last the distance and Qamar Zaman was exactly the same.
Meanwhile, Gogi [Alauddin] was also skillful, he had excellent control, particularly a soft charge, and a good lob and drop. The only thing he probably lacked was a bit of real power, and he really threw himself off his feet when he was trying to hit hard, so he didn’t have that extra punch in his shots which gave an extra pressure, but he was very skillful.
Mohibullah [Khan] was like me, he was competent, could do lots of things and was also quick around the court. He would hit the ball pretty well, and while it wasn’t as precise as the other two, but with the style of game he played, he doesn’t have to be. He was still very difficult to beat, and I used to find him as difficult as Qamar Zaman, to be honest. I think it came down to the fact that we were very similar sort of players in our own right and, therefore, it’s harder to play someone like yourself.
Moving to the modern era, squash has changed a lot, not just the game, but also with the rankings, Australians and Pakistanis no longer dominate the top 10 or top 20. What have countries like Egypt done to take the overall quality of their athletes to the next level, and how do you think they’ve been able to do this?
Geoff Hunt: Look, in my era, there were some good Egyptians. And they’ve always had some good, skillful players coming out of the country. But what stands out is that many of them have stayed on to coach and are also involved in squash, back in Egypt itself. This has allowed them to pass on information and know-how to the younger generation.
The interesting thing about squash in Egypt was that when Ahmed Barada and Omar El Borolossy came onto the scene as juniors, people provided them with the funds, helped them develop their squash and sponsored and supported them. This also provided them with both the coaching and the ability to get around and play tournaments. Those two boys came through and were winners and runner-ups in the World Junior Championship and that was the first of the new era of the Egyptian players.
Because of this, they attracted a fair bit of television coverage, funny enough. After that, they started televising the tournaments in Egypt too. And perhaps, because of this, the game became reasonably popular with the public, and also became a very attractive and popular sport in Egypt (after football, of course).
[When] I was coaching; I understood that I would have been learning how to control the ball better and in particular, trying to kill the ball and playing short.
Young fans and players then had some people they could look up to like Barada and Borolossy, and as a result, many of them wanted to play the game.
Egypt attracted a lot of very strong and athletic type of people into the game, whereas in the other countries we weren’t always getting the first choice of athletes into the game. I think in Egypt they have been able to bring in some physically strong people who also have great hand-eye coordination, so it wasn’t long before many of the players developed their squash and became good athletes.
Meanwhile, actual exposure to the game was probably through these players parents’, as much as the Federation there, because the parents used to be the ones who would take them to the junior tournaments in Europe and help foster their squash. It developed from there, and the game became one of the most popular sports to play because of the success that they showed and people then saw that success played out in the media and also on TV.
If you were playing the game today, how would you adapt your playing style? Or how would you have to adapt your playing style? And why do you think that would be the direction that you would take?
Geoff Hunt: I learnt an enormous amount after I started coaching others such as Rodney Martin, in particular. I helped coach him in the early years at the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) and I saw him go on and play in an era which I thought was great. Jahangir and Jansher had come around to the top at that stage, Chris Dittmar and a few other Aussies were there and Rodney, himself.
I saw them and the way they played and went about it, and therefore, once I started coaching I realised I knew that my skill and my actual control of the ball wasn’t as good as some of these players. So, I needed to develop my skill, and I then learnt about some of the things I wasn’t doing as well, and I didn’t necessarily understand beforehand why they were not as good.
Abdullah [Al Tamimi] has also lifted the profile for the local people. And he has been doing a lot of things outside of just playing, with one of his other squash friends. They are introducing young people to squash themselves, and they’re trying to generate some publicity too.
I didn’t know how to fix it and get better, but as I was coaching; I understood that I would have been learning how to control the ball better and in particular, trying to kill the ball and playing short. While working with Rod [Martin], I worked out a better way to go about it and do it too.
To be honest, that’s all I would do to actually bring up my skill level and maybe changing some aspects of my technique in regards to how I used to get in position and when I used to take the ball, so that would be a fair change for me.
You coached in the GCC, Qatar in particular, with sports in the region, it isn’t exactly known for its achievements. What is the potential like for the growth of squash there, and what was your experience like there?
Geoff Hunt: I’ve seen quite a few outstanding squash players come from the area, to be honest. You had Abdullah Al Muzayen, for example, from Kuwait. He’s an exceptional squash player, and he’s come through training via some superb coaching there.
Rahmat Khan coached there for several years, as well. So there was a good influence of coaching, and I think Gogi [Alauddin] was there earlier than that, many years ago. So there have been some excellent coaches around there too.
However, I suppose the interest in squash hasn’t really been there apart from expats who play the game. But I think there’s no reason that that area couldn’t develop a lot of outstanding athletes, as there are quite a few squash courts in the region.
You only have to look at the academy where I worked, Aspire Academy. Their entire philosophy is to build homegrown champions. And not just champions in sport, but champions in life and, in turn, make leaders out of their athletes. They’ve got the world High Jump Champion who came through too.
There were a lot of the resources and support that the academy provided to all these athletes, so it is possible to develop in that region, be it that the actual population is small when you compare it to the rest of the world, in fact, I think there’s no reason they won’t get more players out of there.
It was interesting for me to spend the time there, but I think they just don’t have the numbers [in terms of their population] and that is probably the hardest hurdle to overcome with some sports in the region.
And considering the harsh weather, do you think there is room for squash to capture more attention (being an indoor sport)? And if so, do you think this is being done, because there have been calls or criticisms of the early games in the Qatar Classic with empty stands and so on?
Geoff Hunt: I suppose because the general population hasn’t played, had access to or seen much squash, so there might not be an interest in it. Because, apart from the Qatar Classic, there hadn’t been a lot of televising of the sport.
But when you get to someone like Abdullah Al Tamimi coming on, that helps to create something different and grow the game. And don’t forget, most of the top Egyptians have gone and played there too.
They have a sizeable population of Egyptians in Qatar, in fact, it was sad to some extent [laughs]; I saw Abdullah play the World Championship last year, and he was probably not getting as much support as Tarek Momen was, due to the Egyptian population in the country.
However, Abdullah has also lifted the profile for the local people. And he has been doing a lot of things outside of just playing, with one of his other squash friends. They are introducing young people to squash themselves, and they’re trying to generate some publicity too.
I think there’s a good chance that a lot more people will take up the game. You need role models in any sport, and I think it makes a vast difference. Hopefully, someone like Abdullah will help with that.
I know that there’s a bit of padel being played there as well because that’s again suited to being indoors, isn’t it? Maybe that’s a bit of an easier sport though, and squash is one of the most physically demanding sports, but I think it’s suited to that climate too.
Like I said, eventually, with the publicity that comes out of having big tournaments there and with Abdullah and a few of the others having a good standard, you will find more people watching and wanting to play the game.