Youngsters ready for KL showpiece
By ALEX WAN – Squash Mad Asian Bureau Editor
The opportunity to play in the World Championships is not one that most will have come by in their career. However, players whose nations play host to the event have such a rare opportunity.
Come next weekend, eight up and coming young Malaysians, none of whom would have qualified on rankings, will be battling it out in the qualifying draw together with another 24 for the remaining eight slots in the main draw.
For some, it will be a first time playing in the World Championships, while some have been fortunate enough to have been through it.
One such person is Vanessa Raj, who was given the wild card in 2014 when the event was held in her home state of Penang, where she lost out to eventual winner Laura Massaro.
But among the most experienced of the youngsters, it is Rachel Arnold, who will take to court for the third time. Rachel, the younger sibling to world number 15 Delia Arnold, celebrated her 20th birthday a couple of days ago. She has reached the second round of qualifying on both occasions.
Rachel, who is a natural attacker with some deft volleys, has been working on her defensive game and improving her fitness for the championships.
One of Rachel’s closest friend, Teh Min Jie, also played in the 2014 World Championships in Penang. Likewise, she also lost out in the second qualifying round to Egyptian Salma Hany Ibrahim. She added that she was definitely not happy with her performance back then as she had focussed too much on winning rather than playing her game.
Min Jie feels she has matured a lot more as a player since and this season, she feels she hasn’t done badly at all. She has set her sights on breaking into the top 50 this year.
The trio of Rachel, Min Jie and Vanessa have featured together in many team events for Malaysia and last year, they won the South East Asian Games team event gold in Singapore.
Then there is the quartet who finished third at the 2015 World Junior Team Championships. Andrea Lee, Zoe Foo, Sivasangari Subramaniam and Nazihah Hanis upset the odds in Eindhoven when they made it to the semi-finals, beating a more fancied New Zealand.
Andrea Lee, currently the fourth ranked junior in the world, lost out in the first qualifying round in the 2014 edition in Penang, despite having led 2-0. She still remembers it very clearly how upset she is and hopes to erase the memory with a better performance.
Andrea had missed most of 2015 due to her SPM (O-levels equivalent) examinations that year, but now that it is out of the way, she is putting in double the hours on training and is looking forward to breaking into the top 100 this year.
Zoe Foo is thankful that Malaysia is the host to the prestigious event once again. Playing in the event for the second time, she is both excited and nervous at the same time. Zoe is hoping to use the experience to understand how the top players play the right shots at the right time.
The 17-year-old is one of the rising stars who will be playing a lot more professional this season having just completed school. Ranked 114 in the world, she will be looking to knock on the doors of the top 100 soon.
For the remaining two of the World Juniors team, Sivasangari Subramaniam and Nazihah Hanis will be making their debut at the World Championships. Nazihah, the elder of the two, is a part-time player who is also juggling her squash life with tertiary education.
Turning 19 this month, she won her last junior event at the Oceania Junior Open in January, defeating top seed Abbie Palmer of New Zealand.
While she is nervous to be playing on such a big stage, she is also well aware that there’s no pressure on herself. She will count herself lucky as she has been hospitalised for the last few weeks due to dengue fever, but has just recently been given the all-clear by the doctors.
She hopes that this opportunity and her tournaments to come will help catapult her into the top 100 this year.
Sivasangari Subramaniam is one of the brightest juniors from the Malaysian camp. Aged 17, she is already ranked in the 70s and is working towards getting into the top 50 by the end of the year.
She will be coming into the event on a high, after picking up a pair of back-to-back PSA titles in the last two months at the Malaysian Tour.
On the bigger stage, at the $15K Bahria Town International in Pakistan, she narrowly lost in a five-set battle in the opening round. The 2015 British Junior champion also won the South East Asian Cup this year, beating compatriot Aika Azman in the final.
Pictures courtesy of Rachel Arnold and from Squash Mad archives