‘Asal is every bit as single-minded as Jahangir,’ says Aussie legend Hunt
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW BY RJ MITCHELL (Squash Mad Correspondent)
GEOFF HUNT has revealed that Mostafa Asal’s all-conquering run at the end of last season has reminded him of the immortal Jahangir Khan.
Without doubt the greatest Antipodean player ever to lift a squash racket, Hunt was the first professional world champion when he dispatched Mohibullah Khan in a five-game death struggle at Wembley, London, in 1976.
It was Hunt who five years later fought with every fibre of his redoubtable being to stem the tsunami of youthful bristling aggression that was the 17-year-old Jahangir, who was to defeat the Aussie legend in the World Open Final in Toronto.
Jahangir was also to rip Hunt’s dearest possession, the game’s most historic trophy the British Open from his grip in 1982, after Hunt had managed to hold back time the previous year by defeating Jahangir in a four-game match play masterclass at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley.
Fast forward 40 years and with Asal, the self-styled ‘Raging Bull’ of the modern game bringing the curtain down on the post-Covid campaign of 2021-22 with all-conquering victories at the El Gouna International and CIB PSA World Tour Finals, Hunt believes the portents are pointing to Asal emerging as the game’s ultimate big beast next time around.
“Mostafa is young and supremely talented and he and Jahangir have come along slightly different paths but you can’t say there isn’t a bit of the Jahangir in Mostafa,” said the eight-time British Open champion.
Hunt continued: “When Jahangir came through he was very much a good length player who hit the ball straight superbly, although very quickly he developed his shots and became that superb aggressive player he was to grow into.
“Similarly, I can see that Asal is aggressive like Jahangir as he does attack the ball and he hits it hard and puts a lot of pressure on people so there is a parallel there.
“Perhaps Mostafa is a bit different from Jahangir in that he came through with some great shots in the beginning. He could always kill the ball and has always been quite aggressive with his play since he was a junior. Obviously I am comparing him at 20 with Jahangir as a young junior who came through and won the majors at 17 or 18 so it is a hard comparison to make.
“But Mostafa has got better and better and he has always been a difficult customer to play as he brings so much physicality on to the court. He is a very competitive sort and also very skilful, as he showed as a junior, and that progression has continued in the senior ranks.
“So Asal is very difficult to play and sometimes when someone is as young as that and playing so well he can lose perspective a bit – but I don’t see that with Asal. He is every bit as single-minded as Jahangir was from what I can see.
“I have always thought he would get to the top, and next season he will be really focused on taking that No.1 ranking without doubt.”
With Asal defeating Paul Coll in straight games in the title matches at both El Gouna and the World Tour Finals, after having beaten World No.1 Ali Farag in the semis of these respective competitions, the current close season has for Hunt acquired extra importance as well as rekindling memories of the off-season he got wrong.
The game’s first professional world champion said: “You can call it the off-season as you are not playing tournament squash but in fact it is just as important as any other part of the year, if not more.
“For me when I finished a big period where I had been playing the British or the World Open I would take a break from playing squash but not from exercise, as it is vital to keep the body active in some way.
“There was one year in 1975 when I lost in the British Open to Qamar Zaman in the quarter-finals and it really knocked the stuffing out of me and made me ask myself: ‘What do I do now?’
“So I approached the great Hashim Khan and asked him to critique my game and he was happy to do that over an orange juice at the Grampians Club and we had a bit of a chat about the game and where I could go forward.
“But after that I had five and a half weeks off and I went to South Africa and had a holiday, and then on to Botswana, and I sat around the pool doing not much but ordering a beer here and there. I tell you what, after that I decided never to do it that way again!
“It was just such a difficult road back to recovery even after just under six weeks of not training, but although mentally I needed to get away from the game there was no way I was ever going to repeat that type of break.
“But once I started training again I spent an extra 45minutes to an hour hitting the ball again and trying to put into practise some of the technical things that Hashim had pointed out to me.
“At that stage in other pre-seasons I had spent so much time working on fitness that I had neglected my technique and developing my skills and that was a mistake and he reminded me there were things I could do better like hitting the ball cleaner and more accurately and adding variation.
“So that made a big difference to me. However fit you are you must be able to control the ball, and that extra solo work was time well spent.
“But in hindsight looking back there was another aspect that we didn’t know about and this became clearer to me after I became a coach. That was maintaining proper muscle balance and flexibility and getting your body fit and strong enough to cope with the demands of the game.
“We used to play a lot of squash, do a lot of running and some flexibility and a bit of resistance work, but in my day we were amateurish in that aspect. And so in my coaching I put real emphasis on getting the players in the best condition in every aspect, not just the anaerobic aspect on which we had concentrated back in my playing days.
“Of course everyone is a bit different and you have to look at the individual and it is vital you take that into consideration.
“But that loss to Zaman took a lot out of me and it really pointed me in a new direction in terms of my preparation work.”
Despite his two final losses to Asal, Hunt is adamant that fellow Antipodean Coll should not be losing sleep over the prospect of locking horns with the Raging Bull when the new season begins.
The four-time world champion said: “Paul has come along in leaps and bounds in all areas of his game and one of the biggest areas was doing work that has improved his flexibility with the cross-fit stuff. He has obviously been working on other aspects of his game and when you look at how well he played at the British Open I don’t think he should be worrying too much.
“Obviously he will speak with his coach Rob Owen about where the matches were lost in the World Open, the Tour Finals and El Gouna but from there Paul will have been working hard, he certainly wont have taken it lightly.
“Probably the British and World Opens are the two most important events for Paul and while the Worlds Series Finals and El Gouna are big tournaments they are not quite of the same level and Paul won the British emphatically without dropping a game and lost in the semis of the Worlds after having had a war in the quarter-finals. So you must put that in perspective.”
In a recent Squash Mad interview Jonathan Kemp, who has succeeded Hunt as both head coach at the renowned Aspire Academy and as a key member of great Middle Eastern hope Abdulla Mohd Al Tamimi’s coaching team, revealed his top-10 ambitions for the 27-year-old.
For Hunt there is one obstacle that must first be overcome to make that happen. He said: “Top-10 is definitely possible for Abdulla but his injury issues are a problem and he just hasn’t had time without injury and it continues to thwart him.
“It will depend how conscientious he will be about rehabbing; he has always had the talent and some great wins and I think he has a chance – but the key for Abdulla is avoiding the injuries and until he gets over that hurdle it will continue to be the biggest problem for him.”
Pictures courtesy of PSA World Tour and Squash Mad archives