MALAYSIA-BORN Sanjay Jeeva may not be making headlines in the sports pages in Malaysia right now, but he most definitely deserves to be.
The 19-year-old squash player, who is a pre-med student at Franklin & Marshall college in Pennsylvania, USA, recently represented Negeri Sembilan in the 2018 Sukma Games.
He first picked up the sport in Belgium when he was 10 years old, after moving there with his family when his mother, a Malaysia Customs officer, was seconded to the World Customs Organisation. He has been ranked as one of the top young players in Europe, and has represented Belgium in several tournaments.
In an email interview with Sanjay, he spoke about the challenge of balancing his studies and sports, and his hopes of representing Malaysia in international squash tournaments. What attracted you to squash?
“Honestly, I was not attracted to the sport initially.
“I was actually playing badminton in Belgium, and my sister was playing squash. My dad realised that there were no great badminton coaches, and he decided that I should just play another sport ... So, I started playing squash, tennis and swimming at a club near our home. I just seemed to excel in squash and enjoy it more than the other sports, and that’s when I became more attracted to the sport.”
How was your initial training?
“I got my initial training in Belgium at a club nearby my house called the Castle club. When I first started, I was playing just for recreational purposes on the weekends without a fixed coach.
“The first year, I kept switching coaches, but eventually the club established a proper junior academic programme for squash, and I joined that. My first proper coaches were Suzan Gibril and Noelle Tracy, both great players. They taught me the basics of the game and gave me various advice.
“As I worked up the ranks as a junior, I managed to get a [private coach]. His name is Don Veale and he had experience playing on the professional circuit. He really helped me further the game.
“Other than that, my dad would always push me outside of the courts to do skipping, jogging, and stretching.”
What was it like when you won your first game?
“I have been competing in the Belgium Dunlop circuit since 2010, and participating in all seven of their [yearly] tournaments. Back then, these tournaments were huge for me because I was only exposed to [the same] group of players, some even being my teammates, and it showed which level I was in compared to the others. I would hate losing to my teammates.
“But it was in 2012 where I won my first Under-13 tournament against the [then] top Under-13 [player who was also] my teammate. I was so thrilled to have won against someone I [had always been] losing to, but that only made me more hungry to beat players in the higher age category.
“This excitement was nothing compared to when I won my first junior open – the Luxembourg Junior Open. I had only been playing squash for one-and-a-half years [at the time] and then played in a junior open Under-13. I had no expectations whatsoever, and I didn’t really know how everything worked, just that I had to keep winning and that is what I did.
“People started talking about me, about how I came out of the blue and won. I also started making more friends, and I was always more eager to win tournaments.”
Does it bother you that you have yet to represent Malaysia, the country where you were born?
“Ever since I became more involved in squash, I have always wanted to represent a country.
“It was always my dream to represent my home country, but as I was not living there [at the time], I found a temporary solution – [to] represent the country that I was currently living in.
“I have no regrets representing Belgium except that I would have to wait three years before I can represent any other country. I would prefer to try and represent Malaysia as quickly as I can, but I am in no rush as I am in college now and trying to become the best player I can before attempting to represent Malaysia.”
Who is your biggest inspiration as a squash player?
“Ramy Ashour has become an idol in my life because my game is similar to Ramy’s, as in I am a shot player as well.
“I always admire how he manages to hit all kinds of shots with such a short backswing and racket speed. Whenever he plays on [the PSA World Tour], I would always watch him play. I aspire to be as good as him one day.”