Winning all the top titles, growing squash in Oz, and keeping Jansher waiting: Sarah Fitz-Gerald opens up to Squash Mad
By Alan Thatcher, Squash Mad Editor
Sarah Fitz-Gerald is a busy lady. As well as coaching, commentating, playing in Masters events and generally acting as one of our greatest squash ambassadors, she is also getting her hands dirty by working in the squash court construction industry. We caught up with the five-times world champion as she wiped the plaster off her trowel and packed away her power drill.
SQUASH MAD INTERVIEW:
11 POINTS WITH SARAH FITZ-GERALD
1: Sarah, you played in possibly the most competitive era in women’s squash, with so many tough, talented opponents at the top of the game. When you look back now, which of the big occasions do you remember the most, and why?
A: Wow…so many matches and events felt like big occasions…. World Opens, British Opens, Comm Games, Aussie Open… they all had a story leading into the event.
Winning 1996 World Open, Malaysia…just had surgery on my wisdom teeth about 2 weeks prior….went with the ‘will do my best considering poor preparation’ attitude, and played great relaxed squash…..1997 Sydney – beating Michelle Martin on her home soil in 5 with my coach who travelled out from England, 1998 Stuttgart, Germany – led 2-0, then went down 2-2, 8/2 and saved 7 match balls to win 10-9 in 5th…..we got a standing ovation.
2001 Melbourne – winning at home, it felt like I fulfilled my destiny and I played my best ever squash, 2002 Qatar has the best story…. after a lot of dramas of flight cancellation, lost luggage, wearing other players’ clothes, one new and one old shoe, play was stopped and the arena cleared for 30 minutes in the final due to condensation on the walls and floor. There were ranking issues, but in the end I won my fifth world title in four over Natalie (Grainger) Pohrer.
Commonwealth Games 2002 – pressure, emotional, expectations, playing in ‘green and gold’, playing a former Aussie team-mate and former doubles partner to win in my other English home away from home, Manchester, at 10-9 in the fourth.
British Open 2001: I twisted my ankle badly before the quarters. Luckily I had a great physio, lots of ice, loads of treatment and a brilliant psychologist to win 3-2 in semi and 3-0 in final in Birmingham (where I played national league for Edgbaston Priory).
2002 British – won in Manchester, had a lot of support….
Aussie Open – winning my first was special as it took so many years to finally win that title….and did it in Melbourne on home ground.
Each major seems to have a great story which this column isn’t big enough to elaborate on.
2: Was there always an added ingredient when you played an English opponent, especially in events like the British Open? Who were your toughest opponents, and again, why?
A: The old love-hate thing between the Poms and the Aussies was always prevalent …but a couple of the English players were my greatest friends and rivals. I had some ding dong battles with Sue Wright…..I always managed to notch up a win over her but mentally it was hard.
I remember one occasion at the British Open in Wales, where it took approximately 107 minutes to win in four games….I often felt so relieved when the match was over….plus on this occasion we kept an irritated Jansher Khan waiting (I believe he warmed up three times) which brings a smile to my face.
A: In the early days it was the British Open in London for sure….the tournament had a players lounge, and being in London everyone would hang around…..but generally the British Open marked the end of the season, so it was the last event before everyone took a break, went home etc….so the players would relax and let loose.
The Aussies’ training base was at Caversham in Reading. Many would come back as the party grew in reputation each year.
4: Australia were always in contention for, and frequently won, the World Team Championships for men and women. Nowadays Cameron Pilley is the highest ranked Australian male at 20 in the world, and the highest ranked female is the 38-year-old Rachael Grinham at 12. Why do you think there are fewer Australians at or near the top of the rankings at the moment?
A: I think since WIPSA/PSA grew in player numbers and the tour grew to all year round, our players are based overseas now and don’t come home very often…so Australia have been deprived of their talent and no top ranked players for our kids to aspire to and watch.
Also it seems the ‘powers that be’ forgot about developing juniors and looking into the future, added with Australia introducing new sports and activities for kids and of course computers, squash got left behind. Other sports were doing it better….so our numbers decreased.
Also our clubs are old with dungeon courts….peoples expectations have grown…consequently our players, courts and media have dropped.
5: Is there a fault anywhere in the system that interrupts juniors on their transition into the senior ranks?
A: I feel kids have so much going on. I grew with up with what seemed like a handful of sports. Now there are dozens of sports and activities to choose from, and I’m not sure kids are willing to work hard enough in squash any more. In very recent years Australia has been trying to create junior programs, events, tours and players.
Finding good sportsmen and women is a numbers game. When you get a group of kids, it’s easier to attract more kids..…we need the masses to start playing again to find the talent. Our venues are predominantly old, other sports are on TV….if we start to get the formula right our sport can grow again.
6: The rest of the squash world could only look on in astonishment at incidents leading up to last year’s Commonwealth Games, when two Australian players took legal action about the selection process. How did you feel about that situation?
A: It was a sad moment in Australian squash’s history…along with plenty of other sad moments we’ve experienced over the years (players not representing their country or jumping ship to play for another country). Unfortunately, the situation went through the courts and legal channels and caused disharmony and distraction for the players. The saddest moment was the player involved was in the Games Village in uniform and was asked to go home….what a horrible, horrible moment…he handled the situation with such dignity for a young man. The remainder of the team went about their job and performed beautifully, bringing home gold medals for Australia. The low moment eventually was outweighed by the high.
7: The doubles, however, was a huge success for Australia, with gold medals for Rachael Grinham and David Palmer in the mixed event, and Palmer and Pilley in the men’s. How was that greeted back home?
A: I actually didn’t return immediately to Australia so can only assume it was greeted really well and a great ‘positive’ after the earlier debacle of the Games….but I will guess it didn’t receive the media attention it deserved. For the team it left our players on a huge, well deserved and well earned high. Our players who won gold thoroughly deserved it and were extremely proud to be wearing the green and gold uniform.
8: What did you think of the dimensions of the doubles court – and are any being built to that size in Oz?
A: The new dimensions of the doubles court is a great improvement from previous events and the 13-inch tin makes a huge difference. The players actually enjoy playing now, as winning shots can be made, teams can work better tactically, and players have more room to swing.
We have a couple of world-class venues in Aussie that can host international doubles. Darwin Squash Club has 12 CourtTech courts with four moveable walls creating four doubles courts, as does Melbourne (the 2006 Commonwealth Game venue), so our players have better opportunities to practise and prepare for major doubles events.
There have been a number of venues and proposed venues around the country looking to instal moveable walls for doubles and to utilise the space for other activities also.
9: You are now involved in the court construction business, and, from photographs I have seen, you don’t mind getting your hands dirty and your overalls covered in dust. Please tell us a bit about the business and how things are going.
A: I am the agent for CourtTech Australia and our product is approved by the World Squash Federation. My husband Cameron is the main builder, but I like to join the team by getting my hands dirty so I can learn and understand the product and have conversations using the right terminology! I have a much better understanding of the construction of a squash court now.
I think I have covered every aspect of this great sport…player, coach, MC, commentator, host, cleaner, mentor, ambassador and now builder.
CourtTech covers Australia, New Zealand and Oceania region. Squashies, councils, builders all want to build, renovate or have queries, but as you can imagine these things take time and don’t happen overnight, and at least now the communication channels are open. My aim is to inspire and give them the ‘build it and they will come’ belief.
10: Do you see signs of growth in Australian squash? If so, where?
A: Yes…Australia seems to be showing signs of growth aga, which is terrific. Previously in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, squash courts were in ‘stand alone’ squash clubs (courts, changing rooms, club room and reception) but now they seem to be incorporated in council-owned multi-sport facilities.
Some forward-thinking councils and shires are looking to squash to combat fitness and growing obesity issues.
As we all know squash is a short, sharp work-out for our time-poor society and lifestyles. With the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast coming up in 2018 things are looking positive for this great game.
11: The Aussies always enjoy life on the Masters circuit. How are your results these days?
A: I have enjoyed playing Masters….not only does it keep me involved in the game, but I get to catch up with friends and squashies from all over the world. So far so good….recently my results have been on the winning side of things…British Opens, World Opens, World Games…looking forward to the next World Masters in Johannesburg in 2016 where I hope to take a group of players to compete, do the sights and have some serious fun….. and once again catch up with loads of squashies and friends….and maybe win a title too!
Pictures courtesy of Sarah Fitz-Gerald