Sleeping on couches to NZ men's No 1, Kiwi Paul Coll's rise to squash stardom
Paul Coll's days of couch surfing before overseas squash tournaments are a thing of the past.
New Zealand's top men's player has enjoyed a stellar past year, rising to a career-high of 12 in the world rankings and in doing so has started to reap the financial benefits for his hard-earned graft.
In December, the 25-year-old West Coast-raised Coll, who shifted to Canterbury as a teenager, achieved his largest pay day since turning pro in 2011, collecting US$16,000 (NZD$21,978) after taking out the St George's Hill Classic in Surrey, England.
It doesn't sound much compared to the big bucks earned by Kiwis who play professional rugby, rugby league or football, but for Coll this was a big deal - a far cry from his early days on the circuit, when it was a battle to break through into the main draw of tournaments and he often wondered where his next cheque was coming from.
"There's definitely been some really tough times where I've phoned mum back home and said 'I need some help, I'm really down'," Coll said. "There's been countless times where I've slept on people's couches when things haven't quite gone that well. It's definitely been a hard road."
Netherlands-based Coll is home for the nationals in Havelock North this weekend, where he is gunning for a third straight men's title.
Coll has been one of the most improved names in world squash over the past four years, soaring from 116th in the January 2013 to just outside the top 10.
Only three Kiwi men have achieved a higher ranking. Ross Norman, who stunned Pakistan great Jahangir Khan in the 1986 World Open final, rose to a career-high second, while Stuart Davenport (3) and Bruce Brownlee (6) also had top 10 stints.
Professional squash players don't generate the lucrative prize money of their golf or tennis counterparts, but Coll said they were compensated well when they were winning.
He travels to a variety of luxurious locations and rates competing in a glass court next to the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and a makeshift court at New York's Grand Central Station as career highlights.
In August, he will tear around a rooftop court at the Peninsula Shanghai Hotel in China, overlooking the city's towering skyscrapers.
Coll's pleasing recent results and landmark victory at the St George's Hill Classic has ensured he has a comfortable buffer financially from prize money.
He has a major sponsor, Eye Rackets, and receives assistance from Squash New Zealand and appreciates their loyalty. "They've been there my whole career and been really supportive of me. I owe a lot to them.
"[Winning] makes life a little bit more comfortable. Before, if I didn't do well, there was a little bit of pressure with life. It's not the end of the world if I don't do well in a tournament [now]. I've got that little bit of security in the bank."
Coll's rise up the ranks means he can longer fly under the radar at major tournaments. The world's elite know who he is and meticulously study strengths and weaknesses in his game.
Cracking the world top 20 has long been his ambition, something he ticked off on New Year's Day. Now he dreams of becoming the first Kiwi male to reach No 1.
"Top 10 is definitely my next short-term goal. I'll look for a top 10, and then after that top four and then hopefully top one, if it all keeps going well ... I've had to reassess my goals. I got to where I am a lot quicker than I expected."
This week, Coll returned to his roots, hitting at the Greymouth Squash Club, which has just three courts.
Coll's love for squash was fostered there, watching his father, Michael, a West Coast representative, the "hero" he wanted to emulate.
"There's no heating [at the squash club], so it gets pretty cold in winter. It's cool coming back and playing the guys I grew up playing and giving them a beat down. They used to give me plenty when I was younger."
Coll is the nephew of former Kiwis and West Coast rugby league second rower Tony Coll, who played 65 games, including 30 tests, between 1972-82.
Rugby league was a major passion for Coll growing up, playing for the Marist club until he left to board at Christchurch Boys' High School in 2006. He could have easily continued on in the sport if not for a lack of size and still follows the 13-man code closely.
Coll said his uncle had been a mentor to him as he adjusted to the life of an elite sportsman and the challenges of the professional tour.
"He's a real inspiration for me. He's one of the toughest people I've ever met. I still aspire to be like him. He's been a real influence on my sporting career for sure."
Coll's best results in PSA tournaments include victories over Egyptian World No 5 Ali Farag, who he overcame in January at the Tournament of Champions, and compatriot Tarek Momen (ninth in world). He has also beaten former No 1 James Willstrop of England (ranked sixth) and German Simon Rosner (11th).
As well as capturing the St George's Hill Classic, he has earned PSA tour wins at the London Open, Paris Open, Australian Day Challenge and Northern Territory Open since the start of 2015. Coll teamed up with Kiwi women's No 1 Joelle King to claim the world doubles title last August.
His rise is no fluke. Coll remains modest about his achievements although he admitted his manager's phone has been ringing more often, even if it doesn't always translate into sponsorship opportunities.
Coll was dubbed "Superman" by commentators last year after his acrobatic efforts at the Canary Wharf Classic, where he threw himself about to save points during rallies.
"I don't try and dive, but people love that. It's always a bit of fun for me and good to build up a public profile."
He credits much of his improvement to being based at the Meer club in Hoofddorp, 30 minutes drive from the Dutch capital, Amsterdam.
Coll has been there for the past four years, but for the first two years only stayed for three-month chunks.
"Last year and this year, I've had a visa for the whole year, so I have half the year there and half the year [in New Zealand]."
Coll works with coach Tommy Berden and has close access to elite opposition, training facilities and tournaments in Europe.
Old fashioned hard graft on the training court and gym have been instrumental, but it's no surprise Coll's consistent performances have bred confidence. His supreme strength and conditioning are arguably his most valuable weapons and he prides himself on his ability to wear down an opponent, even in a five set marathon.
"I love that side of it. I've grown up hard working. It's second nature to me, fitness. To me, it's an enjoyable side of training."