Tinne Gilis is a Belgian professional squash player, who is currently ranked 19th in the world.
In this candid interview, she talks about everything from her career, breaking into the top 20, her sibling athletes and the future of squash.
Zushan Hashmi: How are you keeping yourself busy amid the lockdown?
Tinne Gilis: This lockdown made me think about a lot of things, like what I want to do after my squash career but also training-wise. Now that I have more time, I am focusing more on the things I usually don’t do that much during the season like stretching, mobility, yoga, core.
I’m still trying to do 2 sessions a day to keep my body going, but it’s not always easy. Some days I lack motivation (which is normal I guess) and I decide to take it easy, other days when I feel good I can push myself.
In between sessions I’ve been trying to bake a little bit, like healthy cookies, banana bread, and brownies. I usually never bake, but I’ve realised it’s actually fun (especially eating it afterwards).
Any tips or advice for other squash fans during these times?
My tip for everyone during these times is to enjoy the little things in life. We don’t always realise how good life can be and how lucky we are that we can do what we love the most. When all this is over, enjoy everything a little extra and never stop doing what you love the most.
Tell us a little bit about yourself outside of squash? What are your hobbies and what do you get up to do?
I’m a very social person, so I like to go out with friends for lunch or a coffee and socialise a bit. I don’t really have other particular hobbies, but I’m always up to try different things and sports. As I’m very competitive I always try to make the best out of it.
You come from a family of athletes, with your sister [Nele Gilis] competing against you, and your brother [Jo Gilis] in professional football, what is that like?
Yes indeed, I think it’s amazing that we all found passion in a sport and that we can call it our job now. Ever since we were young we loved playing sports, we all started playing squash at a young age. We tried other sports as well but my sister and I loved playing squash the most, whilst my brother decided to focus on football.
We are all very close, supporting each other no matter what. Of course, there is some competition between Nele and I. We’ve faced each other many times on the squash court, but we’ve never lost respect for each other.
Does it get competitive at home?
I think it’s safe to say that we are all very competitive in everything, we HATE losing. And I am not just talking about playing sports, but also with things like board games for example [laughs].
It’s nice that your closest family understands your lifestyle and what you’re going through. To have that foundation makes me work even harder.
At such a young age you’ve already broken into the top 20 of the squash rankings, what is that like?
It’s an amazing feeling! It was definitely one of my main goals. I think one of the best feelings you can have is knowing you work hard for something and that it will pay off someday. I believe anything is possible if you put in the work and keep dedicated and motivated throughout the process. One year ago I would have never thought I was going to break into the top 20.
What has been the highlight of your squash career?
The best achievement of my squash career so far was reaching the last 16 of the World Championships in Cairo. I got the chance to play Nouran Gohar in round 3 on the glass court in front of the Pyramids. It was definitely an unforgettable experience and the most amazing place I’ve played squash so far. I hope to get more chances to play in such iconic places.
Tell us a little bit about the fitness challenge of playing squash?
Physicality has become a very important part of the game. The higher the level of the player, the more important it is to have good physicality as the quality of the shots becomes better and better. I think the level of squash players nowadays is higher than ever.
Who are some of your all-time favourite squash players? Why?
My favourite squash players inside the top 10:
I always loved watching Nicol David play. She is such an inspiration for everyone and she did (and still does) so much for our sport. I’ve always admired her ever since I was young. Her game was just amazing to watch, she was very skilful and physically and mentally strong. It’s also very important for the sport to be a nice person on and off the court and I think she’s a very good example of that. You will always see her with a smile on her face and she’s always more than happy to help and inspire other players. I’ve got so much respect for her!
Two other of my favourite squash players are Camille Serme and Raneem El Welily. They are both very nice people and fair players. I’m always so impressed every time I watch Raneem play. The quality of her shots are unbelievable, in my eyes she’s the most skilful female player on tour. Camille has always been one of my favourite players on tour. I just love her attitude on the court. She’s such a fighter and always so motivated. She’s someone who will treat all her opponents with respect and would never leave the court without giving it her all. Apart from that, she’s also a very nice person to hang out with!
Of course, I love watching Paul Coll play, as well. It’s always more intense to watch family play because you really want them to win. I think he’s also a good example of what hard work can do. You don’t always have to be very talented to be good at something. If you really want something and you work hard enough, anything is possible.
Is Squash easily accessible in Belgium? Is it expensive to play?
We used to have a lot more squash clubs in Belgium because it was more popular.
Nowadays it’s a lot harder to find squash clubs, we still have more than enough clubs but it’s not as popular anymore as it used to be. Compared to other countries it is not very expensive to play squash here in Belgium.
Is the sport growing there?
Squash is not really a popular sport here in Belgium. At the moment there are only 4 professional squash players from Belgium on tour: Jan Van Den Herrewegen (HWR: 69), Joeri Hapers (HWR: 134), Nele Gilis (HWR: 17) and myself (HWR: 19). We are all based in different countries as there are not many players here whom we can train with. We knew if we wanted to improve our squash we needed to move to a place where squash is bigger and where there are more professional squash players around.
We have some talented junior players coming up, hopefully, they will keep having fun playing squash and that they will grow in the sport.
What are your thoughts on squash not becoming an Olympic sport?
It makes me very sad. If you see what everyone did to put squash in the picture and show what an amazing sport it is and it still didn’t get picked as an Olympic sport, this is just sad. Squash is not only physically, but mentally one of the toughest sports there is. I think we deserve so much better than this and I hope we eventually get there one day, so the athletes can get the stage they deserve.
In other sports, there is a lot of discussion around women’s pay, and parity with the men’s part of the game?
Squash is one of the few sports where men and women are treated equally and receive the same prize money. It wasn’t like this before, but I think it’s very fair they changed it as the women’s competition is certainly as attractive as the men’s.
What would you say to young aspiring women who want to enter the squash courts and become pros?
If you want something, go for it! The most important thing is to never stop enjoying being on court. In the end this is what makes you keep working hard. There will be ups and downs. Everyone will go through rough times at some point, but we need this to learn and to become stronger.
What can we expect to see from you in the future in Squash?
Of course my dream is to become the best in squash. I hope to play for as long as possible, improving myself and trying to become the best in the world. Anything is possible if I put in the work and keep dedication and passion. I will do everything I can to reach the no.1 spot and see how far I’ll come.
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Saqib Tanveer assisted in the curation of this article. You can follow him here on LinkedIn.