ESF circuit "means so much" to Masters legend Fredrik Johnson
The legendary Fredrik Johnson has been playing on the ESF circuit for 45 years and says it "means so much" to keep competing and collecting trophies on the European stage.
Johnson, from Linköping in Sweden, played in his first ESF competition aged 15 in Heidelberg, Germany. He went on to have a stellar junior and pro career (reaching world No.19), before becoming one of the most prolific Masters players of all time.
Now 60, he has been crowned Swedish champion on a remarkable 56 occasions, as well as winning two World Masters titles, eight British Open Masters, the European Club Championship twice, the European 'Champion of Champions' once and the European Masters on six occasions (including an unbroken run that began in 2009 and ended at this year's championship in Hamburg where he had to retire in the quarter-finals due to a knee injury).
"It means so much to have the ESF Masters circuit, it truly does," Fredrik told us. "The circuit has really grown, with new faces joining all the time and the standard has gone up hugely.
"There are a lot of countries who didn't have any players in the tournaments I played in as a professional, but now have several players in the ESF Masters draws. People playing in their first ever international tournament are mixing with ex-professionals.
"It's a great way to travel around Europe and meet new people. From my point of view, it's an amazing thing to have and it means so much for those of us who take part. It plays a big role."
Johnson practises at least once a day, either at Linköping Squash Club or at Linkoping Sports Center, which is also the home of the city's top-level ice hockey team, for whom he has worked as Sales Manager for 26 years.
Some of Johnson's practice partners in Linköping include juniors who are competing on the ESF circuit. Johnson knows from his own experience how valuable those experiences can be for aspiring young players. "The events are very important - the circuit is like a school for kids to learn the game and a bit about life. The ESF has a very important function for them growing up."
Johnson estimates he has played in 50 countries and has won multiple ESF titles in Germany, Finland, Czech Republic, Malta (one of his favourite tournaments), Denmark, Luxembourg, Great Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands (he won his third Dutch Masters title just last week).
The 60-year-old's favourite ever ESF tournament was way back in 1983, when Sweden beat hot favourites England 3-2 in the final of the European Team Championships in Munich. "That was a big one," he remembers. "I was the youngest in our team. I remember it so clearly - it was one of the top moments in my career."
Johnson - who was Tournament Director of the Swedish Open on the PSA World Tour for 15 years - has some wisdom for other players seeking to maintain their fitness throughout a long Masters career.
"When I was a professional, I did lots of running - probably too much running!" he laughs. "Now, as an older man I do very few running sessions. I've swapped the running track and the forest for weights and stretching in the gym. That's the big difference.
"During my professional career, I relied so much on my fitness and being able to stay on the court for two hours. Now, it's changed a bit. I'm still fit and like to play at a high pace, but I have to think more on court.
"What I've realised is that in Masters squash, the boast becomes a really important shot. I have a really good attacking boast which wins me a lot of point. I would say I have won many Masters titles because of that shot!"
Now, deep into his 46th season playing in ESF competitions, he reflects with great pride on his achievements and the rich experiences they have given him.
He says: "It's unbelievable how much the sport has given me - I have friends all around the world. It has been my pleasure to win a lot of titles, but I have also lost a lot of matches and learned from every defeat. I'm very happy to have been part of this wonderful circuit and I'll be here for a few more years."