‘We had a good old chinwag as HRH asked me lots of questions about squash’
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW by RJ MITCHELL (Squash Mad Correspondent)
BY any standard Laura Massaro’s career has been a stellar one. A former World No.1, world champion and double British Open champion, you name it Massaro has won it. But on Tuesday at Windsor Castle the 38-year-old received an accolade that was totally different from these iconic titles.
For Massaro’s MBE was bestowed on her for these same achievements in squash by HRH Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, at a ceremony that had been delayed for two years previously.
It was also an award which was made even more poignant for Massaro given that the letter of notification was signed by HRH Prince Phillip, the late Duke of Edinburgh, just a few months before his death in 2021.
Now speaking exclusively to Squash Mad, arguably the greatest-ever British female player of the game has revealed it was an experience that she will never forget.
And it was made even more unique by the personal interest taken by Princes Anne, who herself enjoyed a hugely impressive sporting career as a horsewoman who won the European Championships and was also an Olympian.
Reflecting on her moment of destiny earlier this week, Laura shared: “Receiving an honour like that is extremely special as you can’t win it, you can’t work to achieve it, it is out of your hands and you have to have it bestowed on you and that is what makes it so special.
“I was actually announced on the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List a couple of years back and I got my letter from Prince Phillip, who sadly passed pretty soon after I got it and that makes it very special.
“Then with Covid, and then my pregnancy, it was a long time coming to finally go to the investiture and receive the actual MBE.
“But what an unbelievable day to go down on Tuesday and actually experience the pageantry of the whole day and it’s build-up and to visit Windsor Castle.
“My original date was at Buckingham Palace and I had to defer it for a year as I was due to give birth a couple of days after the date, so the invite came through five or six weeks back and I was a little bit disappointed as I really wanted to visit Buckingham Palace.
“Now, after never having been to Windsor and then going, well it was just so special and I am so glad it was there.
“It was so much bigger and grander than I realised and the whole ceremony and build-up was just so special and I will never forget it for the rest of my life.”
Yet it was the level of interest and insight shown by Princess Anne that was to make these proud moments even more unforgettable for Laura as she revealed: “It was Princess Anne who presented me with the MBE and we actually had quite a long chinwag!”
The former world champion continued: “I expected to walk up and her to say: ‘Congratulations’ and maybe ask what my best achievement had been, and that I’d reply: ‘Winning the World Championships’ and that would be my prompt to exit but it was a real two-way conversation for a couple of minutes. It was brilliant, really.
“She just asked: ‘How did you get into playing? How is squash? How is the sport going?’ And she said that she used to read about squash in the papers but not so much now and asked was it still growing and then how many girls and women are playing?
“Then she asked: ‘What’s it like to play in one of these glass boxes? Can you concentrate when you are in there?’
“So I joked: ‘Well you’ll know, you competed in a major arena and at Olympics which put you under intense scrutiny and you will know what it is like!’ But then she wanted to know if you can see out of the court and obviously I said you can if you focus out but that you have to avoid doing that.
“Then, when I told her about the Tournament of Champions in Grand Central Station being the toughest to focus at, well she just couldn’t believe that and then at the end she just told me that I had a great career and should be really proud of what I had achieved.
“Then that was my sign to take three steps back without turning my back on her and the curtsy and exit right.
“But for me Princess Anne was hugely special for her sporting achievements and if you are going to speak about sport to anyone in the Royal Family then Princess Anne would be the one and it just made it so much more.
“I do really like the Royals and always have and it is a unique institution and what they do and their devotion to their duty is overlooked sometimes. What they do is tough and people may see luxury and the lavish lifestyle but what they have to do goes hand in hand with that and they have to give up their lives for all that and get very little time to live a normal life.
“So for me to go down to Windsor and see all that and walk-through parts of the Castle that are not open to the public was just fantastic. The whole day was unbelievable.”
Turning her attention back to squash, Massaro has no doubt that Nouran Gohar’s triumph at last week’s US Open has confirmed her beyond doubt as the bona fide World No.1 woman. She said: “I saw that PSA tweet after the US Open finals that it is 11 tournaments played (this year) and 11 finals and that is an unbelievable stat for Nouran.”
The former World No.1 continued: “All the top players want to win the major titles but what a level of consistently world class squash Nouran is now producing.
“I saw her interview after she had beaten Nour El Tayeb in the semi, that she had overheard some of the commentators saying they thought El Tayeb would win and how that had wound her up and that made her push extra hard.
“So it is unbelievable that people are still doubting her when she had made 10 finals in a row at that point but it is just a credit to how she goes about her business and it’s almost under the radar.
“In some ways it’s like my own career. It’s nice when people are talking about you to win these major events but you don’t want them talking you up too much as you want to stay under the radar and go about your business throughout the season.
“But it is nice when you get the recognition and Nouran is doing unbelievably well with tremendous consistency, so absolute credit to her for becoming so hard to beat and World No.1.”
Perhaps the performance of the tournament at the Arlen Specter Centre on the women’s side was Sabrina Sobhy’s defeat of World No.2 Hania El Hammamy and Massaro reckons this points to a future top-10 career.
The two-time British Open champion said: “Well I think the level that day she played against Hania and the level she played against Joelle (King) the next match was a level which, if she can sustain it, will mean she is capable of breaking into the top 10.
“I saw a couple of her social media posts saying she is finally starting to enjoy life and her squash and finding that and that is so hard as a player.
“I talk to my players a lot about that and ask them: ‘How do you want to win a squash match? How do you want to win it so badly but yet you not need to win it?’ That is when you normally play your best.
“Where it edges over into desperation is where you are going to struggle to find the consistency and the optimum performance, so perhaps she is realising that a bit and that is all part of gaining the extra experience that comes with age.
“But you don’t beat Hania El Hammamy and then have a real battle with Joelle King if you are not capable of breaking into the top 10, but doing that on a consistent basis month-in, month-out is the challenge and it will be interesting to see how Sabrina goes in that respect.”
Thank you, Laura, and congratulations from the whole Squash Mad team on this hugely deserved accolade.
Pictures courtesy of Laura Massaro MBE and PSA World Tour