Iker Pajares Bernabeu overcomes adversity to reach career world ranking

January 22 2024

For Spanish squash No.1 Iker Pajares Bernabeu the moment the impossible happened, injuring both Achilles in a case of delayed reaction, came at the end of a flight back from Chicago where he had just lost in the quarter-finals of the Windy City Open last year.

That defeat had been the culmination of a torturous seven-match sequence which had also seen ‘IPB’ make the semi-finals at the Squash On Fire Open in Washington the week before and rack up four, five-game matches in a seven session sequence over the two PSA World Tour events.

Heading home for some much needed rest there was only one problem: when the plane landed in Barcelona Bernabeu couldn’t stand up: “I could not get onto my feet and up from my seat. I had so much pain in both Achilles that I just could not walk, I could not get off the plane. It was completely out of the blue and to be honest very scary,” admitted the World No.20.

Yet helping hands soon allowed Bernabeu to exit stage left and it was then that the shocking diagnosis was confirmed. “Eventually I was taken to my doctors and there was also a physio there and both of them were shocked,” the Spaniard recalls.

“It was just really strange as I played the quarters against Youssef Ibrahim at the Windy City Open and I had no pain but then during the flight I started feeling something in my Achilles and when I landed, like I say, I could not walk.

“So it was a delayed reaction and as well as having all these tough matches in Chicago the court surface is very hard there and not the best for the body.

“Of the two the right Achilles was the worst but I had also torn the left, so this is why it took me over half a year to recover as I could not walk and the recovery was very slow.”

The left one healed before the right one but it was slow progress. Bernabeu had to get mobility into his ankle and leg and although he was injured in the legs, his upper body could still do cardio. “To go six months without movement would have been disastrous,” he adds.

Yet even when his rehab had been completed the likeable Spaniard admitted mental demons still circled. He says: “It took me several months to mentally recover. I was 100% physically recovered but I was mentally very scared to get injured again and I wasn’t pushing myself fully when I was playing PSA.

“I was losing so many matches 3-2 as I did not want to push because, like I say I was very worried it could go again, but as soon as I saw I could push myself to the limits that was the moment I really felt back.

“But it was tough as a year and half ago I was also playing really well and at my highest world ranking and in the top 20. And then I got this injury and it cost me five months and it just took me so much time to get my confidence back.”

With a semi-final at the recent Hong Kong Football Club Open and victory at the Open International Niort Venise Verte in his back pocket and a career high ranking of No.18 Bernabeu is now aiming higher.

A defeat following a five -game epic with Tarek Momen at the Hong Kong Open seems indeed to point at more to come from the Basque and Bernabeu said: “Last time I played Tarek in El Gouna I beat him but I had played him so many times before that and always lost to him.

“So we played on a traditional court and I felt I had more chances there as he is very aggressive and sharp in the front and it’s more difficult to play him on glass.

“The last two times, including last week, it was a traditional court and that made the difference and in HK I was 2-1 up and 5-2 up in the fourth and I didn’t think I did anything wrong, I pushed very hard and he just moved me very well but I was so close.”

Bernabeu will now take a month away from the PSA World Tour and will not be heading to New Zealand for the World Team Championships this month as he bids to make 2024 start with a bang at ToC.
Now back on home soil in Barcelona, where he is based at Barcelona’s Global Squash Academy, the eloquent Bernabeu admits concern for the sport in Spain. “So many clubs have closed and in Barcelona we have lost maybe 10 clubs. Squash was very big here in the 90s with maybe 500 plus courts in the city and it was huge.

“Now we are losing so many courts because for a club it is better to have a training gym area or spin classes in terms of money, so it is very sad but the reality is we are losing courts all the time.

“We still have a lot of clubs but none with more than four courts, loads with two courts, so that makes it easy for the clubs to say: ‘We close the court and have a gym instead.’

“Although we have a lot of junior players thanks to the Academy here in Barcelona, the courts are just not there and this will be a problem in the coming years.

“Of course we hope Olympic inclusion will make a difference and I think it will and really hope so. The idea that squash is in the Olympics is new but I hope so much that it encourages more kids to take up squash in Spain again.”