The King of the Squash Court

10 min read
18 Nov 2016
10 min read
1638 words
Every sport has its wonder child, and for Nepali squash, it’s Hira Bahadur Thapa. Thapa’s appeal lies not merely in the fact that he became really good at squash without any formal training and then went on to dominate the sport

What was your childhood like? 

I belong to a farming family from Bakrang in Gorkha. I had a humble yet comfortable life. Growing up with six siblings meant that I was always pretty adept at dealing with people. I was quite a docile kid, though average in studies, and spent most of my time helping my father in the fields. Of course, like many children, I loved watching sports, but volleyball was the only sport I had watched until I came to Kathmandu.

Why did you decide to move to Kathmandu?

My cousin was working as a security guard in a garment factory, and during one of his visits to our village, he asked me if I wanted to work at Battisputali Squash Club, which was owned by Murari Shumsher. I had no complaints about my life at that point, but I definitely wanted to experience the world beyond the tiny community I lived in. So I said yes, and before I knew it, I was in a bus heading for Kathmandu.

Was Kathmandu just like what you imagined it would be?

 My earliest recollection of Kathmandu is that it was really cold. I don’t remember what I had imagined it to be like before I got here, but when I did, the town had a slightly eerie feel to it, probably because it was a new place for me. I got a job as caretaker of the first indoor squash courts in Nepal, which was located in Murari Bhawan. Before coming to Kathmandu, I had never even heard of squash, and it felt funny at first watching people hit the ball and run around a room.

So you didn’t know anything about squash before you got into it yourself?

 I started my job as a caretaker and didn’t really understand the game at first. I slowly started getting a general idea of the sport by watching others play. Then I picked up a racquet and never looked back. I was a huge fan of Shreedhar Khatri, and I would observe him and other good players during matches. Then I would practice for days and try to emulate their techniques. In about six months, I could comfortably hold my own against some of the regulars at the club. I think squash, like any other game, is a kind of addiction.

What did you think of the sport before you started appreciating it?

 I used to find squash quite funny, to be honest. People just ran around inside an enclosure, hitting a ball against a wall. It looked more like boxing with oneself using a racquet. And it is, to some extent, a game that you play against yourself. Honestly, when I picked up my first squash racquet, I had no idea that it would put me in this position some day.

What motivated you to take up competitive squash?

My cousin had suggested that I would have a bright future if I could excel in the game. I decided to try it out, and I started practising during my free time. I guess my practice paid off, because I got a chance to compete in a tournament—King’s Birthday Cup Open Squash Tournament— only six months after picking up the racquet. I competed against Suwarna Dhakwa, who was one of the most sought-after squash players in Nepal, and lost the semifinal, 3-1, to him. I wasn’t too disappointed, though, because he was a very good player, who had just returned to Nepal after training in Pakistan. It was also my very first tournament, and I had given a good performance. The entire squash fraternity thought so too, and I was awarded ‘Best Player’ in that tournament.

So losing the finals against a seasoned player was your aha moment, so to speak.

That first match had left me feeling motivated, even though I had lost to such a fierce competitor. This inspiration kept me working hard, and then finally, in 1994, I won the second Mercantile Cup. This was my first win. I was also the first national champion, and the Nepal Squash Racket Association decided to send me to train in Pakistan.

And then from 1994, you held the title of national champion for 17 years!

Winning definitely puts a lot of pressure on you mentally. After I won the national championship in 1994, I felt like people started expecting me to live up to the title; even I was expecting myself to live up to the title. I also struggled financially after my victory—squash is not exactly a cheap sport. Thankfully, I virtually lived in a squash court, so after my work was done, I would practice for hours, and that helped me get to where I am today.

I am not trying to undermine your hard work, but did the lack of players help you retain the title for 17 years?

Once you become a professional athlete and win a title, you come under immense pressure to maintain your status. The biggest competition you will have in sports, and in life, is yourself. You have to keep training and pushing yourself forward. I do agree that squash does not have a rapid turnover rate when it comes to players, but you cannot underestimate yourself or your opponent. I’d be gutted if I lost my title, so I made sure that I worked hard for it, and the 17 years went by in a blink.

What kinds of challenges have you faced in pursuing the life of a sportsperson?

I have played with a racquet that was broken in five places and held together by strings. I couldn’t afford expensive graphite racquets, so I would be in the court, battling with my worn out bamboo racquet. There were times when I would laugh at my audacity—I had chosen a sport that was too expensive for my living standards. It is also difficult to be a player in Nepal. I am still employed on a contract basis, and there is no assurance of job security. But somehow, I have managed my finances well and have successfully covered the expenses of my son’s and daughter’s education too.

Did the thought of giving up ever cross your mind?

There were moments of doubt, but I was surrounded by a group of positive people who constantly motivated me. Of course, it got easier after I established myself and started winning tournaments. But giving up was never an option.

Why do you think our country is still trailing behind in sports?

We don’t have a sports culture. In fact, those who have gone on to achieve some success—locally or internationally— are exceptions rather than products of the country’s sports system. Nepal also needs a fundamental overhaul regarding appreciation of athletes—everyone should be given due respect and credit regardless of their wins and losses.

What keeps you motivated?

I’m still learning and trying to reinvent my game. I don’t play at a professional level anymore, but I’m constantly readjusting the sport to suit my retired life and not-so-agile body. I was never only after money, so it was easy for me to stick with the game. Maybe it’s not in everybody’s temperament to be as simple- minded as I am, but I must say this: without satisfaction in what you do, you will never go far.

You faced a lot of hardships in your line of work. Were you okay with your kids taking up sports?

 I got interested in squash after watching others compete, and I guess, that was the same for my kids—Amrit and Krishna—who are both national players. I was more than happy to teach my children, and my first loss after many years came at the hands of my son, Amrit. It was the happiest day of my life. It felt like I had come full circle and that I had successfully been able to pass on nearly 30 years of knowledge to the younger generation.

How are you coping with your retirement?

I am nearly 50, and I know that it’s almost impossible for me to match a younger opponent at this age. So I’m lucky to be coaching. Coaching requires drive, and it has pushed me to my limits, albeit at a slower pace. Squash is my life, and frankly speaking, I do not have any other skills.

Any advice you would give to younger players, or yourself, if you could travel back in time? I would tell the younger me to take it easy and enjoy the moment. Life is good to those who work hard, and there’s nothing to worry about, as long as you’re doing what you love.