Commonwealth champion Joelle King tells Squash Player magazine's Rod Gilmour about how a switch to Hadrian Stiff’s Elite Squash stable in Bristol has revitalised her career
The scene was not a pretty one for New Zealand No.1 Joelle King when she went for a coffee with English coach Hadrian Stiff during last year’s Allam British Open in Hull.
“It was the first time we’d sat down together and I cried for the whole 45 minutes,” reveals King. “I didn’t know where to go with my squash. It all came out and, to be honest, he was probably thinking why he only coaches male players!
“But he said for us to just get on court and we hit for nearly three hours that day, and I felt excited there and then.”
One year later, not only is she back to a career-high of World No.4, but she is also announced on to court as ‘Commonwealth champion’, after a blistering return to form since deciding to train with Stiff’s successful stable of Elite Squash players in Bristol culminated in King becoming the first New Zealander to win a Commonwealth singles title.
“Last year was the toughest time of my whole career,” said the 29-year-old in between training sessions in Bristol. “I was questioning my game and my confidence wasn’t there.
“When I first came here, I loved it and I never realised I could turn things so quickly, being so out of my comfort zone. But it has all paid off.”
She felt ‘the click’ instantly when she beat Nicol David and Laura Massaro in quick succession – two players she had always lost to – at last September’s China Open.
Making her first PSA World Series final at February’s Windy City Open also proved a huge boost ahead of the Commonwealth Games. “It was about learning from mistakes and in the Gold Coast final it was about holding it together,” she added.
King (right) takes on Nour El Tayeb (left) in the Windy City Open final
This was reflected magnificently when she held off close friend Sarah-Jane Perry in winning the singles gold, staving off a two-game comeback from the Englishwoman to prevail over 78 minutes.
“It was a first for both of us to be in a final like that,” said King. “It would have been easy for her, at 2/0 down, to let it go and it was one of those matches where it was unfortunate someone had to lose. I’m sure there will be many more battles over the years.”
King then added women’s doubles gold alongside Amanda Landers-Murphy and bronze with Paul Coll in the mixed event.
The medal treble marked her as New Zealand’s MVA (Most Valuable Athlete) at the Games, while she was watched by her country’s Sports Minister and the Prime Minister tweeted her achievements at the singles final.
“When you’re out there on court, I wasn’t thinking about becoming the highest achiever or the most celebrated Kiwi athlete, you just try to do your best,” smiles King.
“My form for the whole year just helped to build confidence. We were expected to do big things and I went in with big goals, which I wasn’t afraid to talk about, so to come away with two golds and a bronze, it’s a pretty cool achievement.”
Her success was also achieved despite playing 16 matches in 11 consecutive days at the Oxenford Studios. “It was pretty hectic, but having the experience from two previous Games, I wasn’t going in blind and knew what it was going to take,” she revealed.
Following her doubles gold, she flew straight to Egypt at 5am the following morning. She was knocked out early and then “crashed and burned for a few days”.
She picked up a brief virus before returning to Bristol in preparation for her British Open tilt – the tournament which heralded her return in 2015 after nearly a season out of the game when she ruptured her Achilles.
“It was mentally getting your head around trying to come back to where I was,” said King on her return three years ago. “But I managed to completely evolve my game.”
It did take time for King to settle back into a tour rhythm, but a stronger mind and steely determination soon breathed fire back into the Maori athlete’s career.
“I plateaued and it was tough at the time, but it’s all part of the journey and it makes what happened on the Gold Coast all that more satisfying,” she added.