Aim to squash years of pain

The 36-sport countdown continues with squash and rugby After major setbacks, Rhamanan is eager to win jumbo doubles and revive the game

The first thing you notice about Vivian Rhamanan as he steps into a squash court is his radiant smile, which speaks volumes about the confidence of a man who is in his element when surrounded by parquet and glass.

And who could hold it against him? Rhamanan and partner Marcus Phua are unbeaten since teaming up in January last year, and are the favourites for the SEA Games squash competition's men's jumbo doubles event.

The jumbo doubles is a recent offshoot of the sport that is played on a 6.4m by 13.7m court, compared with the 7.62m by 9.75m standard doubles court.

While things are rosy now, it was not too long ago that squash and life went into a tailspin for the 29-year-old Rhamanan.

In 2005, he missed out on what would have been his SEA Games debut when the Singapore National Olympic Council rejected the Singapore Squash Rackets Association's (SSRA) six nominations for that year's Games in Manila.

The despondent athlete, who has two elder sisters, turned to his best friend Angelo Dave Dharan, then 20, whom he saw as an older brother. "Don't worry," said Dharan, "you will get your chance, and I will cheer you on in the stands."

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Ten years on, Rhamanan will finally make his SEA Games debut.

But in one sense, it is too late.

In 2006, Dharan died. According to Rhamanan, the cause of death was a blood clot in the heart.

The father of two said: "It tore me apart. He was the first person I called when I thought I'd made it to the SEA Games. I was the only athlete friend he had, and he was always very proud of me."

A year after his friend's death, Rhamanan was dealt another blow as he failed to make the 2007 SEA Games squad.

This time though, he did not despair. Instead, he plugged away relentlessly, trained in Malaysia for a total of four weeks, and became the national champion in 2008.

However, with the sport failing to make the Games since, he decided to focus on coaching.

Now his chance has finally come, after it was announced in 2013 that squash would be played at this year's edition.

Rhamanan, who is also the assistant national coach, said: "The SEA Games have helped squash get a bit of interest, and we want to build on that and make squash popular again."

The sport has seen better days. The last time Singapore hosted the Games in 1993, it swept all four squash golds. Yet, the dwindling number of public courts, coupled with a lack of infrastructure, saw Malaysia overtake the Republic as the region's powerhouses.

But there are signs that the sport is on its way up. Last June, the men finished seventh at the Asian Squash Team Championships in Hong Kong, their best result at the biennial tournament in 12 years.

The SSRA will also host a Professional Squash Association World Tour event next year, which could see stars like Egypt's Mohamed El Shorbagy play here.

National men's coach Ibrahim Gul, a Pakistani whose father Rahim coached Singapore during the successful 1980s and 1990s, said: "With a gold, we hope to show Singapore that squash is a game that can bring the country glory. We have the talent, it's a matter of grooming them, and sending them for competitions overseas."

Gul also tipped singles players Samuel Kang and Bryan Koh, who played for their universities in the United States, to shine at the meet.

Rhamanan's mission is now two-pronged. And while his best friend may not be in the crowd, he can smile in the knowledge that his son Travis, who at two is just about old enough to cheer his dad on, will be there raising the decibel levels, the way Dharan would have.