Laura opens her heart about an incredible journey from a nervous youngster to becoming world champion
By LAURA NORTHEAST – Squash Mad Sports Science Correspondent
I really enjoyed my interview with former world champion Laura Massaro, who is publishing a book called All In, Becoming World Champion tomorrow (June 1).
In a candid, reflective and raw account, Laura shares the highs and lows of her career.
Despite not being rated as a future star among her era’s crop of junior players and describing herself as ‘not naturally talented’, Laura proved everyone – including herself – wrong by becoming world champion and world number one.
Her book offers a fascinating insight into life as a female pro, from ‘invisible cliques’ and a ‘pecking order’ to the ongoing fight for equality, managing personal relationships and being stranded alone at foreign airports.
Laura navigated past these obstacles and debilitating nerves with dogged determination, meticulous planning and an iron will, to win multiple titles.
After more than a year of lockdown, I apologised for dragging Laura back indoors from a sunny walk on Preston beach with her beloved dog Woody. She cheerily batted off my apology and didn’t mind me diving in with the first question being whether her father had read her book.
Have your parents read the book – and what were their thoughts? (In the book, Laura describes differences with her father after losing matches during her childhood years)
I wondered, because writing a book is such a personal thing. Everyone gets to read everything about you. Were there any parts of the book that you were nervous about people reading?
With the family thing, it’s tough because I thought about it and I have said ‘If you want to read it you can’, but I haven’t let them read it before it’s finished. At the end of the day, it’s my book and my story. It’s taken a lot of time to edit and be happy with the way things came across, particularly when talking about my dad and my family.
The last thing I want to do is hurt anybody’s feelings, but the memories and my childhood are what they are. They are also a huge part of why I am what I am and that’s a massive positive. Whether or not my family reading it will agree, I’m not sure. I hope so.
Maybe some of the stories I have told are a bit blunt, but it made me the player I was on tour. I don’t think I would have won what I have won without the upbringing that I had. I hope everyone is happy with it.
When we were going through and trying to edit and soften the story about my dad at the British Open (Laura’s father was annoyed after a loss and made her call her mum to collect her from a service station) at 2 am) we decided to have a conversation and get his take on it, which as a kid, you are completely unaware of. Regardless of the book, it was actually really nice to get his perspective on that because it was completely different to mine!
Throughout the book you mention not being especially or naturally talented. For a very average player like me that’s hard to see from watching you play! Can you explain that to me a little bit?
I guess I mean naturally talented with the racket. I believe my personal talent was to commit myself every day and train really hard and do that year in, year out for months and years – continuously.
Having been around a lot of pro players and coaching now, I know that’s not something everybody can do, and that level of commitment is something more special than I realised.
I always wanted to improve myself and have that honesty, rather than brush stuff under the carpet. To look at yourself in the mirror and keep trying to improve isn’t easy. There has to be some element of talent there, of course, but when I compare myself to the players I was around growing up, such as Jenny Duncalf with her short game and Omneya Abdel Kawy, who was just an unbelievable shot player.
Then you look at the Egyptians like Raneem, Nour El Tayeb and Nour El Sherbini who are supremely talented and can play any shot from anywhere on the court; whereas I think my squash game was based around hard work, consistency, dedication, mental strength, the constant ability to be able to look at myself and improve. Also, ensuring good technical competency, working to make sure I improved all the time. That enabled me to play really good drives, really good drops, really good volleys … to move well, to bring my physicality into play.
Of course, you don’t get to the top of the game without being able to execute every single shot but when you watch someone like Fares Dessouky who can just rattle off four points against the top men in the world … I wasn’t known for that, just being able to finish the ball.
You spoke very honestly above suffering terribly with nerves – that must be so hard to deal with year in year out and quite debilitating. It must be like taking a driving test over and over! Did it ever get easier?
It does get easier, as later in your career you get nervous but you kind of get to know which type of nerves they are. I also knew whether I would play well or badly in my warm-up. I didn’t ever know whether I would win as that isn’t always dependant on how you play. In a lot of matches I’d go in knowing I’d play really well but it was still 50-50 as to whether I would win.
Against Raneem or Nour El Sherbini I could play my best squash and still lose if they played their best squash. Then it was down to what happened in key moments.
The nerves at the start of my career came a lot more from what happened as a junior. It was more about fear of failure, really. I got a lot better over the years at realising that performance focus was the way to go; focusing on who you were playing, who was watching, what the score was and where you are in the world was just a massive distraction from what you are trying to do with the squash ball.
The more you can get back to a clear, simple game plan, (which for me, was often just hit the ball to the back, volley and wait for opportunities when they come, with a couple of specific tactics for certain opponents).
When you are waiting to receive serve you just have to worry where to hit the ball. It makes life simpler and takes the nerves out of it because at the end of the day, the nerves come because you are thinking about winning or losing. You get to the point where, if you are worried about winning or losing you probably aren’t going to play well so by default the best way to win is to perform well.
Squash is strangely unique as players travel around in a little pack to each tournament. It’s difficult, because you have the choice of being lonely or getting involved with other players to a degree which perhaps isn’t healthy or helpful. I guess it’s a choice for each player – what do you think?
Yes, it is. It also depends on your personality and culture. For Egyptians it seems quite natural to travel the world together and be close friends. For me, I felt if there was an air of mystery about me and what I was doing, then players didn’t know the type of person I was and that made me a bit more intimidating when I stepped on court.
I picked that up from Nicol (David) as she was travelling the world with a psychologist, physio and her coach and would socialise with them. She was never out for a coffee with the girls, so you would never know where she had been, where she was training, how she was playing, whether she was injured or had a niggle. So, when you stepped on court with her you were almost playing blind and wouldn’t know what was coming.
By default, girls usually go out for dinner, they chat and go for coffee and things just slip in: I played such and such or I wasn’t playing well . . . all of these things slip out without you even realising, then that air of mystery goes.
Some people can socialise with others, and it just doesn’t matter, but for me, I tried to create an air of seriousness and maybe a little bit of intimidation. You can win a few rallies just by how you are when you step on. That’s how I used to feel when I played Nicol.
It helped when I started travelling with Danny and DP (David Pearson) a little bit more because it is really hard, travelling the world, deliberately separating yourself and not going for a coffee. It’s too lonely. When I travelled with Danny and DP I never had to think about who I was sharing a room with or who I should go to dinner with because that was already sorted out.
You told stories about being stranded at a petrol garage, stranded at an airport, stuck in a snow storm; about off-court politics. It’s not always easy being an athlete, especially as a young player…
No, it’s not. There’s also the public humiliation of winning or losing. It’s almost like taking exams publicly. When you are in the spotlight at a tournament and you bomb out, it’s embarrassing. It’s very public and dealing with the consequences of that and managing your team feels like being under a magnifying glass.
Especially now, because everything is on Instagram or Twitter. Everyone knows your results in minutes, they are watching you play live, they know what you have had to eat.
Exactly. When I was first on tour, I had to try to find an internet café to have a chat with someone on Microsoft Messenger. You could go to America, and nobody would know whether you win or lose, you just had to mull it over yourself or whoever you were staying with. Now, players can get on their phones straight after matches and get help, get debriefed, adulation, congratulations.
So, there are pros and cons?
Yes, I’m not going to lie, there were matches when I was younger and I came off court and thought, my God, thank God nobody saw that. Then there’s the other side of the spectrum where you have an amazing win, and you can’t let anyone know.
I saw your long list of inspirational reads at the end of your book. Now you have stopped playing on tour, will you still read those or move on to something different?
I used those to learn and for inspiration so I can’t see myself reading for that reason. Although, I do like autobiographies. I have read a few novels but have been listening to a lot more audio books and podcasts, actually, because then you can choose to listen to a guest that you are really interested in. I’m listening to Matthew McConaughey’s book Green Light and have just listened to Tyson Fury’s book because he is such a character.
There was a diary entry in the book that made me really laugh. Can I read it out to you?
‘Have I given my opponent enough respect? Do they think they can beat me? Have I had enough sleep? Have I eaten enough? Do I feel good? There is more to life than squash. Or is there? I am an absolute nutter! And people think I am mentally strong. They have NO IDEA! Either that, or everyone else is a bigger nutter than me! If that’s the case, God help them!’
Have you decided whether it’s them or you!?
I think it’s got to be them (laughs). Someone asked me in an interview the other day, how it felt reading those diary entries back and whether it’s different with perspective.
I said the biggest thing from going back over diaries from years and years, was that each and every problem I had felt unique and different, as if, in that moment I had never gone through it before.
But looking back it was like I was on a merry go round (takes a deep breath and marks each thought off on her fingers) … I was playing well, then I had a little niggle, then I was tired, then I got ill, then I wasn’t playing well, then I was playing well, then I got to a tournament and played great and got too big for my own ego, then I turned up at the next event and lost, then it was all depressing and how could I improve, then I got ill again, then I went to an event and I won…
I’m not joking! It was a merry go round of the same things. I’d feel too heavy. Put half a kilo on and panic about it, then go too skinny and not have energy and get tired. It was just constant. Just the same thing over and over. That was the biggest realisation.
So, when you read that quote from me which says, ‘is there more to life than squash?’ – of course there’s more life to squash but when you are in it, you are like ‘what’s the point of my life if I’m not living it and breathing it?’ So, who knows?
It’s surprised me, how mentally strong people thought I was. People called me the ice queen and ask me how I survived and found a way to come back in certain matches; they equated that with me being mentally strong.
I remember thinking God, if people think I’m mentally strong and I’m achieving all this and I think I’m an absolute nutter, what must all the people who don’t think they are mentally strong and aren’t achieving anything be going through!!
All the Egyptian girls think I’m tough, as hard as nails – in the end I was trying to live up to that persona as it was a way to win a few points. I know that people always thought that I would win the big points, so at 9-9 that’s going to go in in my favour as they’d have a double marathon to climb.
Not only would they have to win the rally they would have to win it against me. Actually, that’s bonkers, as they just had to win the rally. Who knows if it’s mentally strong or just flipping stubborn.? You just batten down the hatches and put the ball on the side wall and go ‘what are you going to do from there?’
That’s all I ever really used to do in games when things got tight. Just batten down the hatches, put the ball deep and tight and go ‘what are you going to do?’ A lot of players either weren’t fit enough or didn’t have the skill to do anything.
Bringing in your husband Danny and linking back to when we were discussing autobiographies earlier, I read Boris Becker’s autobiography and he said he hadn’t accounted for his wife losing her role (with management support) in his tennis career when he retired and that caused difficulties. Is that a concern or discussion you have had with Danny?
No, I don’t think so. The good thing is that Danny works at the University of Lancashire and he’s always keeping busy with his own coaching. I think we were at the point where he was ready for me to retire more than I was, although there was honestly no pressure to retire.
At what point does it become greedy to carry on playing and try to achieve more? He asked, ‘what difference it would make to win three more British Opens instead of two or two world championships instead of one, when you’ve achieved everything?’.
Obviously, we were both getting a bit older in terms of pro sport. He saw me still trying to achieve stuff and train hard but towards the end of my career, not putting out the same level.
That’s the downside of being such a physical, professional athlete as the drop off was so slight, you know, still top ten in the world and winning but nowhere near at the level I was. I was always of the mindset of ‘why am I bothering to enter these events if I’m not going to win them?’
It’s fine if you want to carry on earning a bit of money, you are enjoying it and you love travelling the world. That wasn’t for me and that’s when questions about retirement come around. Danny would plant seeds about whether it was really worth all the misery of only peaking or winning one event per year. Probably not. If you hadn’t won World’s or British Open titles you would still probably be desperately trying.
Laura, one last question. A cheeky one and you don’t have to answer! In your book you talked about Vicky Botwright’s bikini photoshoot and how much attention it got for women’s squash. Nick Matthew also did a naked photoshoot with a strategically placed racket. Whose photo do you think did more for squash?
Oh, definitely Vicki’s!! If anything, Nick probably damaged squash (laughs). I am friends with Nick so I can say that. But you have got to have some bottle to do it! We had a WhatsApp group for the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
When Nick left the group (when he left to go home) somebody put that image as the group profile picture. I still don’t know if he knows that!
Laura, it was really nice to chat to you. I really enjoyed the book and wish you the all the best with it.
ALL IN, BECOMING WORLD CHAMPION
All In, Becoming World Champion, by Laura Massaro, with Rod Gilmour, is published by Marylebone Publishing. Paperback £9.99p from Waterstones. Kindle version from Amazon at £7.99p. Available for sale from June 1, 2021.
Pictures courtesy of PSA