Gina Kennedy is in the final, and there is so much more to come from this determined, likeable Lioness of an athlete
By ALAN THATCHER (Squash Mad Editor)
Joel Makin and Paul Coll will meet in today’s Commonwealth Games men’s singles final, as predicted by the seedings. However, the top two women’s seeds, Joelle King and Sarah-Jane Perry, will be meeting in the bronze medal play-off after losing in the semi-finals to Hollie Naughton and Gina Kennedy.
Coll and Makin are the two fittest men in squash and both look in good shape coming into the final.
Knowing their enormous physical reserves, it promises to be a long, brutal battle.
Both have been coached in Birmingham by Robert Owen, with Makin choosing to leave the group when Coll arrived.
Makin may feel he has a point to prove, but I think both players are too professional in their approach to allow stuff like that to get in the way of their preparations.
In reality the only point Makin will be keen to make is that he is capable of winning one of the game’s major prizes. Although no PSA ranking points are on offer in Birmingham, personal and national pride come into play in a massive, tribal fashion.
Not only that, but a gold medal is at stake in front of the BBC cameras and the importance will produce echoes around the squash world.
Both players looked impressive in the semi-finals.
Makin became the first Welshman to reach the final courtesy after halting England’s defending champion and 5/8 seed James Willstrop.
Both had featured in long matches the night before. Willstrop was clearly fatigued from his battle with Scotland’s outstanding Rory Stewart, but Makin’s match with Eain Yow Ng (which was unnecessarily extended by Yow’s over-long, bloodless injury break) felt more like Makin enjoying some extra court time to work on his line and length.
Willstrop’s 38-year-old body was not responding at maximum capacity and his movement was clearly restricted when required to make sudden changes of direction.
The 6ft 4in Willstrop is still one of the game’s greatest artists with a racket and he did everything in his power to create opportunities to win points.
However, Makin was happy to cover every inch of the court to keep the ball in play and keep his opponent on the move.
After Makin won the opening two games, each with an 11-5 scoreline, Willstrop came out firing in the third game.
He got his nose in front at 5-4, but some tired errors undid a lot of the brilliant work he was putting in and Makin was able to force his way through to the final with an 11-9 win.
Afterwards, Makin said: “I knew he was hurting physically, but he actually came on stronger in the third game than he did in the first.
“The support has been unbelievable. Everyone has booked so much time off and my family has travelled from all over.
“The Games bring in people who wouldn’t normally watch the sport. When it gets coverage on the BBC, that is where we reach a wider audience and people realise what it’s about. It’s exciting. It’s fast-paced. It’s so intense.”
New Zealand’s Paul Coll, who was runner-up to Willstrop in the 2018 final in Gold Coast, will be waiting for Makin in the final after producing a master class against India’s 3/4 seed Saurav Ghosal.
Ghosal is still playing superb squash at 35 and is one of the most intelligent players in the game.
He worked Coll hard in the opening game and threatened a comeback after going 10-6 down, but Coll was relieved to squeeze through 11-9.
After that, Coll relaxed and got into the groove of playing relentlessly high-paced attacking squash.
His accuracy was unerring and if this is his response to losing his number one world ranking then we are in for some exciting battles next season when he is back among the top Egyptians.
Coll was at his brilliant best as he won the final two games 11-4, 11-1 and he said: “There’s no feeling to describe it. I’ve really found my groove the past two matches. I’ve trained for four years to bring a medal back to New Zealand and obviously I really want it to be gold.”
Hollie Naughton became the first Canadian woman to reach a Commonwealth Games final after the 5/8 seed stunned New Zealand’s top seed and defending champion Joelle King at the University of Birmingham Hockey and Squash Centre.
Naughton, 27, had never taken a game, let alone beaten King, in four previous meetings and even after her surprise win over 3/4 seed Joshna Chinappa in the quarter-final, there were doubts as to whether she could consistently threaten the Kiwi.
Naughton soon answered those questions. The Barnsley-born star looked quietly threatening in an 11-7 defeat in the first game and came out flying in the second, where she moved higher up the court and looked to volley whenever possible. This proved effective, with Naughton taking the second game 11-3 as King looked rattled.
The third game was an even one and at 8-8 could have gone either way. Naughton, however, looked increasingly assured as the match went on, and was able to pull away to take a 2-1 lead into the fourth game.
The efforts of the third game, and perhaps the brutal 85-minute battle against England’s Lucy Turmel the previous day, seemed to drain King and there was a growing sense of inevitability in the fourth game as Naughton rapidly rattled off points.
The onslaught from Naughton continued against an increasingly dejected King, and the World No.20 was able to record a historic victory with a comfortable 11-1 win.
“I don’t really know what happened there,” a stunned Naughton said afterwards.
“This is my first Commonwealth Games and I’m super happy with how I’ve dealt with the emotions and the atmosphere.
“I hope I’m doing [my family and supporters] proud. I want to try and inspire that next generation to follow in my footsteps. Hopefully that’s possible.”
Naughton’s opponent today will be England’s Georgina Kennedy after the 3/4 seed beat No.2 seed and 2018 silver medallist Sarah-Jane Perry in an all-English semi-final.
Kennedy, who has climbed 162 places to World No.8 in the past year, has shown few nerves in her debut Commonwealth Games and played her classic harrying squash from the beginning as she took the first game 11-6.
Perry responded by slowing the ball down in the second and took the first five points on the way to an 11-8 win.
Kennedy, though, had ended that second game strongly and took that momentum into the third game, which she took 11-5 to restore her advantage.
In a thrilling final game, Kennedy earned three match balls when she went 10-7 up. The resilient Perry played courageously and continued to attack, brilliantly saving all three points to force a tiebreak.
Perry came close to forcing Kennedy into a fifth game when she took a 12-11 lead, only for Kennedy to recover before finally making the breakthrough to seal a memorable victory 14-12.
An emotional Kennedy said: “It’s the best feeling I’ve had, ever! Sport is all about role models, and SJ’s sportsmanship and her graciousness are amazing, and everyone is inspired by her on court and off it.
“I just did not want it to go to a fifth because her mental strength is her biggest asset. I think that if it had gone to a fifth I really would have struggled.”
Today’s final will be a career highlight for both players and Kennedy goes into the match as the favourite to win gold.
It’s probably not where she expected to be 18 months ago, but her fearless determination and constantly evolving racket skills are turning her into a formidable player.
In many ways, the progress she has made since the PSA World Tour reopened after lockdown is just the start.
There is so much more to come from this determined, likeable Lioness of an an athlete.
The bronze medal matches of squash at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games begin today at 4pm.
The gold medal matches will begin at 6pm with the women’s final, followed by the men’s final at 7pm .
Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, University of Birmingham, England.
 Paul Coll (NZL) beat [3/4] Saurav Ghosal (IND) 3-0: 11-9, 11-4, 11-1 (43m)
 Joel Makin (WAL) beat [5/8] James Willstrop (ENG) 3-0: 11-5, 11-5, 11-9 (50m)
[5/8] Hollie Naughton (CAN) beat  Joelle King (NZL) 3-1: 7-11, 11-3, 11-8, 11-1 (37m)
[3/4] Georgina Kennedy (ENG) beat  Sarah-Jane Perry (ENG) 3-1: 11-6, 8-11, 11-5, 14-12 (55m)
4pm: Women’s Singles Bronze Medal Play-Off:
(1) Joelle King (NZL) v (2) Sarah-Jane Perry (ENG)
5pm: Men’s Singles Bronze Medal Play-Off:
3/4 Saurav Ghosal (IND) v 5/8 James Willstrop (ENG)
6pm: Women’s Singles Gold Medal Final:
(3/4) Gina Kennedy (ENG) v Hollie Naughton (CAN)
7pm: Men’s Singles Gold Medal Final:
(1) Paul Coll (NZL) v (2) Joel Makin (WAL)
Pictures courtesy of World Squash Federation