It is the variety of shots – and how they are executed – that makes squash such an intriguing game to play and watch.
While Nouran Gohar has the backhand kill, James Willstrop the long drop and Mohamed Elshorbagy the slingshot forehand, Victor Crouin has regularly sent opponents the wrong way this season with his ‘fake straight’ high backhand volley.
With an economics degree from Harvard, the cerebral 23-year-old is the thinking man’s squash player, and this applies as much to his deceptive signature shot as it does to his wider game and career ambitions.
Talking to Squash IQ, Crouin opened up on his inspiration for the quirky stroke, his breakout season, and what he really thinks of his new ‘Iron Marshal’ nickname.
Fake it ‘til you make it
The Frenchman has improved more rapidly this season than anyone in the top 16, rising from 18th to eighth in the rankings since August.
His arrival on the biggest stage has enabled more of the squash-viewing public to experience the wonders of his ‘fake straight’ backhand volley – a shot that has had opponents and audiences alike diving the wrong way .
Inspiration came to Crouin as a teen when he was watching Nick Matthew unexpectedly turn his wrist to play straight backhand drives (find out if Matthew is the squash player you most resemble here).
“The racket goes to the side, but the ball stays straight. He used to do it after the bounce in the front left. I was always a fan of the shot, and I thought, ‘why not use it above the shoulder too’?,” Crouin explained (see demo of shot, below).
“It’s a very dangerous shot if the player feels threatened by a backhand cross-court nick. After you’ve played that a few times you can show it and play that fake straight either short or deep,” Crouin added.
“The past few months, I’ve had to be cleverer with it, because every time someone steps on court with me they’re now aware of it. A few players are now trying it. Aly Abou Eleinen (profiled by Squash IQ here) is pretty good at hitting it now.”
Commander of the squash court
It is Crouin’s strategic nous and coolness under pressure that has, at least provisionally, earned him the Squash TV nickname ‘The Iron Marshal’.
So does the young Frenchman really think a French military commander who died 200 years ago is analogous with his brand of squash?
“I’ve always been one of the smallest players, whether it be in juniors or now on the pro tour, so I’ve always tried to use height – as well as my brain – to outplay my opponents,” the 5 foot 7 player said.
“I’m still not one of the most powerful players, so I try to be clever and organised on the court.
“The Iron Marshal was always very tactical and organised, so that part of the character fits my identity as a squash player.”
“The second part of it is that I don’t have that Latin blood that most French squash players have, where they shout and show their emotions on court,” Crouin added.
“I’m usually pretty quiet and don’t spend a lot of time trying to argue with the refs or even show my anger against myself.”
Despite Squash TV anchor Joey Barrington’s best efforts, Crouin is unsure, however, whether his military-inspired sobriquet will stick.
“Personally I like it, but I don’t think it’s catchy enough. But he [Barrington] is very passionate about it,” Crouin said.
Crouin’s ten-year plan
Perhaps Barrington was also aware that Crouin took several history modules while at Harvard between 2018 and 2022, and counted the subject as his second favourite at school behind Maths.
The young Frenchman’s decision to major in Economics (he started off reading Maths) was designed to maximise his opportunities once he hangs up his racket.
“I’ve decided I’m going to spend the next ten years as a pro-squash player – hopefully. Afterwards, I’ll be ready for another challenge,” he explained.
Crouin approaches his pro squash career like he does his individual matches, namely with thorough contemplation and forward planning.
Unlike other pros that have gone through the US college system, Crouin continued to compete part-time on the PSA World Tour during his four years at Harvard.
This was a calculated move designed to give him a platform to launch a bid for the top of the rankings.
“I tried to improve my rankings as much as possible, so that when I graduated I didn’t have to spend a year or two trying to improve it,” Crouin said.
“I wasn’t expecting to do this well [this season], but I always knew that [reaching the top 8] would happen at some point,” he added.
“My ultimate goal is to get to world number one spot, so it’s just one step towards that goal.”
Quest for world number one
Reaching the top of the sport was a dream for Crouin when he was as young as 12 (he played both squash and tennis but had dropped the latter by that age), he revealed.
“Towards the end of my junior career – when I finished second in both the World and British Junior Opens, I realised it wasn’t a dream any more, but more of a career goal,” he said.
Although Crouin’s more immediate target is to reach the top 5 or 6, what must he add to his game if he is to reach the pinnacle?
‘I think a little bit of everything,” he replied.
“I can definitely get better physically, which is the easiest thing.
“What makes me very motivated for the future is going five with Diego [at the British Open]. I can watch the match again and see so many areas of my game where I can improve, which makes me feel that I haven’t fulfilled my full potential yet.”
“I need to be more consistent and accurate in my hitting to the back corners, and more aggressive in the front corners, especially in black and white situations,” the young Frenchman added.
“To be world number one, you have to be the most consistent player. That’s why to me it’s more important than winning the World Championships.
“It’s a long journey. But I’m getting closer and closer.”
The key for Crouin, however, is to keep squash in perspective with the other things he cherishes in life, including spending time with his friends and his family.
This includes his Dad, who is Crouin’s main coach in Toulon – an hour from where the bulk of the French national players, including Gregoire Marche and Baptiste Masotti, are based in Aix-en-Provence.
He has a twin sister who is not sporty [“she loves to go out and socialise, and I’m happy to be by myself”], and a younger one who recently embarked on a career as a professional dancer.
“Dance is a more difficult environment as there’s more competition and less money [than squash],” Crouin said.
“It resonates with me. We spend a lot of time talking about our respective journeys.”
“My education has always been important in my family’s eyes, and I’ve always had to find a balance,” he added.
“I’ve always been curious to learn and study at school. That’s why when I graduated high school I took the opportunity to go to the States and balance squash and academia – and it was a success for me.
“Those four years in college in the US made me realise that although squash is a big part of my life, I shouldn’t identify myself only as a squash player, or I will at some point struggle to find happiness and be grounded.”
As for his signature shot, how often can we expect Crouin to deploy it at next month’s World Championships?
“I often use it at crucial times, just because I feel like I need to create something,” he pledged.
“It’s cool to have a shot other players aren’t hitting, because if they’re not hitting it they will struggle to read it.
“I’m a pretty steady player. I try to master the basic game as much as possible. But I also like to surprise my opponents. So it’s quite cool to have this shot as one of my weapons.”
See full gallery of Victor Crouin images on Squash Site here