Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Colombian Catalina Pelaez: ‘You have take care of your circumstances and challenges’

#WomensSquashWeek INTERVIEW: Colombia squash ace on life on the PSA Challenger Tour

While the PSA World Squash Tour has started with the glam and glitz of Platinum events in Paris and Doha, for those players who are either trying to make the breakthrough to elite level or a return to it, the Challenger Tour, in squash terms, really is a career maker or breaker.

Four years ago the Colombian international Catalina Pelaez — who has already told how she was injured in a terrorists’ car bomb attack 20 years ago — was struck by a knee injury which looked set to put the full stop on a career that was starting to threaten a breakthrough to the elite echelons of PSA World Tour female game.

Achieving a career high ranking of World No.56 Pelaez was increasingly adding a South American flavour to top tier women’s competition.

The 32-year-old is now back where she began grinding it out on the Challenger Tour while her knee battle continues. And with her ranking back at No.108, Pelaez is refreshingly candid about the importance of the Challenger Tour and also some of the anomalies in it which need addressing.

With #WomensSquashWeek upon us, Pelaez said: “The Challenger Tour is very important, as it’s the only way a young player who is at the beginning of their career or a more experienced player who is coming back from injury or loss of form can climb their way back up onto the main tour.

“But somehow I feel like there were more Challenger Tour events back when I was on my way up as a young player than nowadays.

“For example, for a couple of months I couldn’t play anything as there were no Challenger events: I won in Brussels in May and then next for me was Mexico where I made the semis in August.

“So I feel there is a need for more events at this level and for them to be timed consistently and spread out better so there is regular competition at Challenger level all year round.

“I know that the tournament calendar takes time to complete and put together and that is not an easy process in itself, but if you look at January then all the events are Platinum, Gold, Silver, and there are no 10k, 5k or 3k, so there are a lot of gaps in the season and then there can suddenly be three-in-a-row.

“So it is just not consistent, whereas if you are a top player then you know that you will play a certain number of tournaments as they are always there, where that is not the case on the Challenger.”

When it comes to what is different for her second time around on the second tier tour Pelaez has some interesting observations: “It has changed because when I started playing it wasn’t divided as much from the Challenger to the level below (PSA Satellite).

“I think what they are doing to help the younger players is good, but now that I started back from the bottom it is very hard to make it into tournaments at the higher level.

“Being Colombian and living in South America, if we don’t have regional tournaments it is really hard to gain the points to make it into 3k, 5k, 10K, 20K or whatever.

“So it is interesting what they did to have the option to have regional events in the Challenger Tour to help the regions.

“But I feel it has been harder this time around, although I feel like the Pan Am Games is a one off with the PSA willing to make that event almost like a Challenger Tour event to help the people in our region to gain points.”

Yet Pelaez believes that despite these challenges the quality is improving and she said: “I feel that the level is higher than it was in the smaller tournaments before and that was especially the case after Covid.

“In general there are less tournaments on the calendar than my first time around and so to get points more players from the higher level need to drop down to play in these tournaments to get the ranking points they need.”

When it comes to her own comeback which seemed about to take off with her win in May’s Brussels Dronsfields Mercedes Benz 2023, Catalina is candid about the hurdles she is still having to overcome.

The South American ace said: “It has been up and down and I still don’t feel 100% right and I still need to build up strength in my left leg to improve my movement, but I am feeling better and moving better although now of course it is tougher on my body but I just have to keep working.

“It has been hard but I’ve had some good results and I am starting to get into more tournaments at the level I want, as my ranking has gone up to 108 and I just have to keep building it.”

While former sparring partners have enjoyed treading the boards in Paris, Pelaez has been left watching from the sidelines while attempting to qualify for the Colombian Pan Am Games team in sweltering South American heat – minus the benefit of air con.

“For sure it is tough to watch these events and then you look back and you can’t but help say: ‘If I hadn’t had this injury I could have been there’,” she said.

“There are people competing in these events who I played as a junior but I have to leave that to the side and just focus on me and what I am doing to get back to the World Tour.

“Everyone’s life is different and you just have to take care of yourself and your circumstances and the challenges you face.

“My target is to beat my highest ranking which was 56. But it is tough as you play well and are feeling good and then my knee hurts and I am not so good.

“But I just have to take care of my body and make sure that when I am on the court I am at my best physically and when that is the case I feel like I can still get back there.”

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