Recently, I had a candid chat with one of India’s top squash players and current World No. 46, Ramit Tandon. We discussed his career and everything in between.
Tandon, who is currently in the UK preparing for the upcoming British Open, spoke about his journey so far, the challenges for an Indian squash player, and the goals he has set for himself moving ahead.
Q: How and when did you get into squash, especially given that you come from a one-sport-crazy country?
A: As a kid, my father played squash. Growing up, right from the age of five or six, I would just follow him around the clubs of Kolkata and watch him play. Naturally, when you see your father play something, when you are of that age, you try to emulate him, hit the ball like him, and that’s when it all started. Following him around the clubs is how I discovered squash.
The fact of squash becoming such an important part of my life is more of a natural process. I don’t think it’s ever been a decision that I have taken at a certain age, be it six, seven or eight. I have never sat down and said, ‘okay I’m going to take squash seriously.’ It’s been a very natural process. It’s something I enjoy doing. I started off young, gained some success and have carried on since. Obviously, I didn’t give up my education, and that was always more important to me than squash. Squash, though, was always there with me on the side.
I feel people always say we pick sports, but I think it’s the sport that picks us. The journey is such that, when you start playing the sport, things just fall into place, and you just keep going with the flow. There isn’t really a hard-and-fast decision made which makes you go like ‘okay, from today I am a professional player’ etc; there is nothing like that. It just happens. I think that is the case with most athletes. It’s something they enjoy doing and that’s why they got into it and are really passionate about it and it becomes a lifestyle. It becomes more than just a fun activity that you do for an hour or two hours and it’s been the same story for me with squash.
Q: When did that click for you, when did you realise that this is more than just something you want to do just out of passion?
A: It was probably before the 2018 Asian Games. So, I’m not sure if people know or not, but my journey has been a little different than most athletes from the country.
I graduated from the US and I worked for a hedge-fund company for about three years. While working, I always represented India, so whenever there was the World Championships or other tournaments, I was always given a 14-day leave period, during which I would go represent my country. So even though I was working, I was always competing at the highest level of the sport and it was semi-professional for me. It was before the Asian Games that I made the decision and decided to wholly focus on squash.
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Q: As we all know, squash isn’t the most popular sport in the country and it’s not well-recognised yet. What are some of the obstacles you have faced as a professional squash player from India?
A: I don’t feel there are any obstacles you face in terms of playing a sport. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the sport by my parents. I don’t think I would have ever known what squash is otherwise!
Once you are introduced to the sport, there aren’t any obstacles in that regard, but obviously, there are a few with regards to recognition, say, if you compare it to a sport like cricket. We don’t receive the kind of rewards that cricketers do either, so obviously the reward ratio compared to cricket is nowhere close. I wouldn’t put it as an obstacle, but it’s definitely a downside for the sport and a lot of other sports in India when compared to cricket.
But that’s where I feel you have to look at things relatively, in terms of the funding coming in from the government now compared to what it used to be ten years ago. There definitely has been improvement: we’ve seen more media recognition, there is more funding in the sport, there are more private sponsors etc, so things have grown. Comparing it to cricket would be foolish, but if you compare squash to where the sport was five or ten years ago, one can see the growth. That’s how I like to look at things, a little more positively. I look at how much we have developed in the last five, ten years.
Obviously, comparing it [squash] with cricket is not possible, so I don’t think cricket should be the yardstick for the other sports in India. You can look at both and compare it by saying both are sports and although it’s true, I feel cricket in our country cricket is beyond sport; it’s a religion. I feel more than cricketers being loved for their game, it’s more about idolising them, making them stars in the country. If people really loved cricket, it would be not only full-house for the IPL matches but also for the Ranji Trophy games. That would show love for the sport. But the Ranji Trophy matches have empty stadiums most of the time, so obviously we don’t love cricket as much as we do the stars, the Virat Kohlis and KL Rahuls etc, so I feel cricket in the country is beyond just a sport, so comparing squash to cricket isn’t fair. We should develop a sport for it to gain more recognition. If you look at javelin, after Neeraj Chopra’s Olympic win, the sport has seen recognition, same for badminton with Lakshya Sen’s recent performances and what PV Sindhu has achieved over the years, their respective sports have also received considerable recognition. So it’s good that other sports apart from cricket are receiving recognition.
Q: Along the same lines, in a country like India, how much do sponsorship deals mean for up-and-coming squash players? Did you personally face any issues with sponsorship, and what do you think of the sponsorship model in India for young athletes?
A: Of course it’s helpful. There are no two-ways about whether it’s important or not. Sponsorship is an important aspect from an athlete’s point of view to receive funds, especially in a sport like squash. The funds we get go back into the sport. We use it in our training, to hire coaches and physios, and different aspects to keep improving at the sport; for us, it’s not a luxury.
If you look at the cricketers, the number of sponsors and the level of contracts they have, it is more like a luxury. They can afford to use that money to buy cars and other aspects of their lifestyle, but for other sports like badminton, squash etc, it’s a necessity (for us). That money is used to prepare for tournaments, into training and other such elements. That’s where I feel, with more sponsors for the other sports in our country, it would benefit an up-and-coming player directly.
Q: You are a Tecnifibre-sponsored athlete. Could you tell us more about when and how that deal came along for you?
A: I don’t remember the exact time from when it came along. It happened many, many years ago. When I was a junior player, I was approached by the representatives of Tecnifibre at the World Championships. That’s when I initially signed the contract, and it’s been more than ten, fifteen years that I am with them.
Q: You are one of the most recognised names in the Indian squash scene. As someone who has been around for a while, what do you feel the country needs to do to grow the game?
A: I mean, I would have a long list of things if we speak about how to grow and improve the game, but I have always believed that if I am a player, I need to look at things from the perspective of a player.
I am sure people who are running the federation [the Squash Rackets Federation of India] and people in the administration roles are doing their best for the game. Having worked in the corporate world, I do understand where they sit, and it isn’t just what we feel. It’s easy for us to say ‘we should do xyz’, but if we look at the regulations and everything that we need to follow, the codes of conduct etc, while being funded by the Government of India, it isn’t as simple as it looks. It’s not just me saying we can do this or this or this but it’s the people in the administration role, running the sport, whatever issues they face, it’s not something that the players hear about or have to deal with.
So, I can say that, ‘to grow the game we need to build more courts, grow the game at the grassroot level etc’, but obviously it all comes with challenges. There are challenges, but if only I have been in that position, would it be fair for me to comment on it? There are people who are running it and I am sure they face these challenges, so with me not being in those positions, I don’t feel I am the person to say what we should do or shouldn’t. These aren’t problems that will be solved overnight.
Q: Diving a bit into your life as a squash player, if we look at the training a squash player does and compare it with that of a long-distance runner, both work around the basics of stamina. How different is it, or are there any similarities?
A: I think every sport has its own requirements. If we are speaking about squash, stamina is very important, as is speed, agility and strength.
Comparing it with a long distance runner, squash has a lot of stopping and starting. For a long distance runner, he stops at the end of the race, but in squash you stop at the end of a rally and then start again and stop at the end of the rally. It’s very different.
Every sport has its own component of its own element. Whether it is tennis or squash or any other sport, they all have their own requirements. I am not exactly sure of what a long distance runner’s day-to-day training routine is, but obviously, for both, fitness is very important. For squash, it’s more of a stop-start approach. Squash is one of the fastest sports in the world. You have to do short sprints, stop and go again.
Q: What lies ahead for Ramit Tandon? What are your future plans and goals?
A: I only went professional in 2018, and we have had two years of COVID, so it’s not been a very long stint for me yet. Currently I am World No. 46, and the plan is to definitely play more. The Indian athletes have been the worst affected by the pandemic. If you compare the lockdowns we had in India with those in the UK or the USA, it’s much worse. If you are a professional athlete in the UK or the USA, you get to continue training even during the lockdowns, while in India, everything just shut down. And after the initial lockdown, we had ‘lockdown 2.0’ etc, so obviously it affected us.
For any athlete, taking even a week off puts you back two levels, so you can only imagine what happens when you take a few months off. With that regard, I feel Indian athletes have been the worst affected. Travelling to competitions etc hasn’t been easy either, but of course things have gotten better now, but we have missed out on a lot of events. Our rankings took a bit of a hit, because even though we were forced to stop, the world did not stop; tournaments were happening around the world following the first wave.
So, playing more events is something that I am looking forward to. I am looking to break into the Top 20, Top 10 in the world rankings, and that process will also help me set a couple of short-term goals.
Currently, I am in the UK preparing for the British Open, which gets underway next month. That is followed by the World Doubles, which is a preparation for the Commonwealth Games given that doubles are only played at the Commonwealth Games. Post that, there is a Major in Manchester. So the short-term goals are to do well in these tournaments and take confidence from these heading into the World Championships in May.
Q: Finally, to sign off, what is something you would like to tell the aspiring young squash players from India?
A: I would just say: enjoy the process, enjoy playing the game. There are very few things in life that you are that passionate about, which is one of the most beautiful things about sport.
If we look at it, as kids we play so many sports, but eventually we stop or switch it because we don’t enjoy it anymore, so I feel if you have stuck with a sport long enough, it’s because of your passion for that sport. I feel in life, having a passion about anything, be it painting, art, etc is kind of a blessing, to be so devoted to something and feel so strongly about it.
So, I would say, look beyond the ups and the downs. Obviously, when one is emotionally connected, the lows will definitely hurt a little more than with something else. Emotionally, it can get draining, and when you do well you will feel really happy and the lows will hurt, but sport isn’t like any other job. With any other job, it’s only between you, your boss and probably the three other people on your team, but with sport, anyone can check and pull up your ranking, it’s all there in the public domain. That will obviously put more pressure. People will have expectations, they will always pass judgements whether they can do it or not themselves, but the key is to remember the joy you get from playing the sport. Look past the ups and downs and enjoy the ride!