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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Exclusive interview with New Zealand’s Joelle King

Alex Wan
Alex Wan is an avid squash lover who writes, photographs, plays and coaches when he is not making a living with his Finance degree.

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Joelle King in action
Joelle King in action

Kiwi ace Joelle King loves being back on Tour after injury setback
Interview by ALEX WAN – Squash Mad Asian Bureau Editor

 

Squash Mad brings you a pair of interviews with two women from the world’s top ten, who at the height of their careers were forced to be out of the game for months due to their unfortunate injuries. Joelle King ruptured her Achilles tendon in August last year while Low Wee Wern tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus in April this year. First this week, Alex Wan speaks to Joelle King in Macau.

Joelle King had just returned from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow where she won a bronze in the ladies singles, after overcoming Alison Waters in the third place play-off. She was playing her best squash and was enjoying her fifth month of a hard-earned career-high ranking of fourth in the world. She was 1-0 up against Megan Craig in the final of the New Zealand Nationals and, at 1-1 in the second game, she ruptured her Achilles tendon. That incident would keep her out of the game for nine months and nearly ten off the professional tour.

She made her big comeback at the British Open in May, where she made the quarter finals as the 10th seed, losing out to eventual finalist Laura Massaro. She then went on to win the Australian Open, beating Annie Au in the final, and in the China Open, she lost to world junior Nouran Gohar. In her last tournament with a pegged world ranking of 11 at the Macau Open, she was edged out by Annie Au, whom she beat in Australia, in the quarters.

We managed to catch up with Joelle at the Macau Open a last week.

TIME OUT: Joelle with husband Ryan Shutte at the Australian Open tennis ...
TIME OUT: Joelle with husband Ryan Shutte at the Australian Open tennis …

You’ve been out since August last year. That’s nearly 10 months not on tour. Can you tell us briefly what went on during those months?

I’m really trying to not let this sound too miserable. Like any major injury, it’s quite shattering. It was just after the Commonwealth Games and I feel I was playing well.

With these things, it’s either you dwell on such thing or you pick yourself up and look forward. For me, I knew I needed to come back. My age was to my advantage, I was still 25 then.

I didn’t want to rush back. I wanted to know that I could prolong my playing years before I stepped back on court. A major part of my rehabilitation was in the gym.

Off the court, I had the chance to be a normal person. I have been training and travelling all the time since I was 19.

...and catching up with friends back home
…and catching up with friends back home

So it was nice to be a wife, be a friend. It’s really been quite a while since I had the chance to do that.

This is my first ever major injury and I’m actually quite surprised I enjoyed the break.

Catch a sneak peak of Joelle’s recovery here

 

How did it feel then when you first came back at the British Open – having been out of action and coming back into such a major tournament?

When I was injured, I made some goals. One of them was that the British Open would be my comeback tournament. I felt like a kid going to my first tournament abroad. It’s great to have that desire to compete again.

I was more excited than nervous really. I feel quite relaxed when I played. I just came back so there were no expectations and it’s quite nice to play with not so much pressure.

Playing Victoria Lust in the British Open
Playing Victoria Lust in the British Open

You’ve had three tournaments so far since coming back on tour. A winner’s medal in Australia, quarters at the British and two weeks ago lost to the world junior champion. Are you happy with how you are doing so far?

Yeah, I definitely am. The state of the women’s game is so high these days. There is so much depth.

Games are already exciting from the first round now. At the moment, I’m really trying to just get back to that level. It’s mainly about building back the confidence.

Of course we all want to do what Ramy (Ashour) does. To go out on an injury break and come back to win the Worlds, but….. It’s nice to be the hunter than the hunted.

At the Australian Open, it was a double victory for NZ. Paul Coll won as an unseeded player and you upset Annie. It’s not often NZ win both titles in such a big event. It must’ve been a very special moment for you both?

It’s definitely nice to see someone like Paul (Coll) coming through. It was a proud moment for both of us to win the title at the same place. Definitely nice for two Kiwis to win, even much sweeter as it was in Australia, because we have this big rivalry with them!

Winning feels good, especially in Oz
Winning feels good, especially in Oz

NZ has made its mark on the women’s tour. But the men are still far behind the top nations. Is there a reason why they should not be competing with the best given that you girls can?

One of the biggest obstacles they face is after getting to a certain level, there’s not enough people to train and play with. They actually need to move away to get that exposure and it’s a big decision to do so. But they’re starting to do so. We’ve got Campbell Grayson in the US and Paul Coll is based in the Netherlands now.

For us women, we’re lucky because we can play in the men’s events back home. There are lots of club level guys who are actually better than us.

There’s quite a big gap between you and the other NZ ladies. In the last decade or so, it seems to be the case. Before this there was Shelley who was way ahead of Jacklyn and now you are quite ahead of the rest. Why do you think is that?

I have no idea really. I have always been ahead of the rest since I was young. As a junior, I had to play up the age groups in order to be competitive. But I really can’t tell you why. We were probably at the peak when Leilani Joyce and Carol Owens were ranked 1 and 2 in the world back then.

Training with Shelley Kitchen (right)
Training with Shelley Kitchen (right)

Do you feel that it is geographically a disadvantage for Kiwi squash players generally?
The girls laugh at me like, “oh that was a short 12-hour flight”. For me, there’s even more so reason to do well. When we win, it makes things a lot more worthwhile. I wouldn’t see it as a disadvantage but instead, I see it as inspiration to do better.

Is squash a popular social sport back home? Are courts easily accessible to the public or is it an elitist sport?

It is very, very popular. Back in the 80s when Susan Devoy was the world number one, it was actually the most socially played sport in New Zealand. Then there was a dip in the 90s. I guess like any sport that’s doing well, it always helps to popularise the game.

With media coverage, people tend to take notice. These days, there is also very good TV coverage n New Zealand. All the major tournaments are now aired live on television. Like I said earlier, we have very good club level players that are better than us.

The tin : 17 or 19 inches?

I think 17 inches is quite nice. It’ll make the game more exciting, especially on TV. It’s just an adjustment and a matter of getting used to. I must tell myself I love the 17 inches!

You lost to Nouran Gouhar at the China Open. She then went on to beat Nicol David. The scariest part is she’s only 17. And there’s so many of them around. Any idea what sets them apart from the rest of the world?

I know! Even as a player, it’s so exciting seeing them. They’re not afraid to play anyone. It’s great to have them for the sport. It’s even scarier to go over there and play, because you can never know who you will face. They’re just so mentally strong and play with no fear against anyone at all. There seems to be no “junior squash” in them.

After months out injured, Joelle is ready to hit the road again
After months out injured, Joelle is ready to hit the road again

So what are your targets for this season?

I’m just trying to get more tournaments on board. Each event helps build my confidence up. Hopefully, by the World Open, I would have got some points to qualify for the qualifying.

What do you think are our chances in making the Olympics now that it’s back on the table?

You see, first of all, I still struggle to understand why we are even having this conversation.

It’s going to be really tough when we are going against baseball and softball, when the Olympics is going to be held in Tokyo, where it’s a big sport. I just hope that we will get a chance to prove ourselves.

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Joelle, it’s great to see you back on the Tour. Many thanks or such a great interview and good luck in America.

Joelle will next play at the Carol Weymuller Open in New York, where she received a wild card, against Alison Waters and in the US Open in Philly, she will have to battle through the qualifiers. 

 

Pictures courtesy of Joelle King  and British Open Squash 

 

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