Away from the court Thierry gave me a tour of his local haunts. We swam, caught too much sun, ate samosas – takeaway food stalls win over French brasseries here – and sat on rocks looking out to sea as we watched surfers. It was clear Thierry was in his element being back here. “No offence,” I exclaimed, “but how the hell did you manage to become a world champion squash player coming from here?”
Thierry always played under the banner of France, so outsiders assume he learned the sport there. But no, he lived in Réunion for most of his young, developmental years in squash, only leaving for France when he was 18. It is outrageously difficult for players, certainly in squash, to come from countries with no system or track record. You don’t suddenly see countries materialising in sports at which they have never previously excelled. It would be difficult for Russia to suddenly become world beaters at cricket. There is no background, no history, no system.
In squash one player is currently materialising in Peru. The world junior champion, Diego Elías, is an outstanding prospect, but Peru have been relatively non-existent in world squash up until his first conjuring. It’s a stunning achievement already.
Thierry took me along to see the club where he played as a kid, where he carved out his future career. He called it a squash club but behind the padlocked door was just an old, abandoned barn that was completely caked in bird shit. There were two bits of “space” that could have passed as squash courts. Some lines were almost visible but prison walls would have made better playing areas. There were remnants of an old club shop that once existed and there was an old advertising poster of Thierry.
He hadn’t been in the place for years and was clearly excited to see it. He described to me, as I stood rapt, the atmosphere of the club that existed all those years ago. It must have been a harsh reminder what time can do as he remembered his training sessions and club nights with the fellow members and players. The interior was completely overrun with cobwebs and the clocks had stopped as the whole entity was left to fester. I almost expected some sort of Réunion Island version of Miss Havisham to appear in a wheelchair to welcome her Pip back.
I knew how much work it took for me to reach high levels in the game, and while I didn’t exactly train in palatial facilities as a kid, I had a decent and welcoming club to go to, a family who were involved in the game, and in my dad I had an expert coach from whom to learn. There were a gaggle of young players to train and compete with and in England we had role models to emulate and copy. In other words, the opportunities, facilities and inspiration were there. It helped.
Thierry worked with a blank canvas. Only incredibly modest facilities were available to him, with no state of the art gyms in sight and no coaching expertise to bounce off. But maybe that’s enough. Thierry proved that you don’t necessarily need all this and you certainly don’t need money. You just can’t buy excellence, which in this age of fads and quick fixes is gratifying. Thierry told me how he would come down to the courts and train, and he said he had the foresight to train hard. I wondered how on earth he would have done it in this barn? “There were less cobwebs then!”