Australian squash legend Sarah Fitz-Gerald says she feels for the likes of British Open champion Nouran Gohar after the Egyptian ace was denied the opportunity to defend her British Open title following the postponement of the 2020 tournament by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The former World No.1 claimed the first of her two British Open titles after three final defeats to fellow Aussie Michelle Martin – a scenario echoed somewhat by Gohar who failed in her first bid to land the ‘Wimbledon of Squash’ in 2016 following defeat to Nour El Sherbini before she returned to the showpiece event to vanquish France’s Camille Serme.
But while Fitz-Gerald returned 12 months later in 2002 to mount a successful defence of her title, Gohar has been left high and dry by the suspension of the PSA World Tour.
It’s a scenario that Fitz-Gerald, who also won five world titles, admits she would have found testing, but the Aussie legend has urged the current crop of player to focus on the positives.
“It will have been tough for Nouran not to have been able to defend her British Open title both from a mental and a physical standpoint. I know that she had an injury issue with the plantar fasciitis that forced her to withdraw from Cairo before the lockdown and also I believe she is at a key point in her degree, but as the reigning British Open champ you want to defend your title and it will have been tough for her to sit it out,” said Fitz-Gerald.
“Yet there is a positive for her in that she will get to hold onto the trophy that bit longer and she knows that at some point she will make that defence and quite probably she will be in a better place in terms of fitness to do so.
“But I know how much it means to win a British Open, as it took me long enough and when I managed to defend it successfully with a second win back to back in 2002, it was probably the finest moment of my career. So Nouran has just got to focus in on all of that and stay positive.”
2002 British Open winner
While the great Aussie didn’t have to contend with the frustrations of the game being shelved by a global health pandemic, she did have to come back from a double dose of career threatening knee surgery and says she sees similarities in the qualities that will be required for all players to bounce back again.
“In ’99 I had a knee operation and when I came back it just wasn’t right and I had to undergo a second operation and that was just very worrying and frustrating for me,” she said.
“But that gave me a real fire in my belly and I was very determined to make it back and I went onto have the best spell of my career when I did, winning the British and World titles in 2001 and defending them both again in 2002.
“So, a big part of how the players will come back is going to be down to how much they want it.
“I think in this respect the role of the players’ coaches will be very important. The coach has to keep you on your toes mentally but also make sure that their players have a physical training programme that will ensure they don’t get out of shape and retain a very good base of fitness.
“They also need to keep talking to their players and make sure that they are aware of their mood and just what is needed to keep them positive and focused.
“When I had that protracted spell out with injury, my chief coach Mike Johnson, from Caversham, was excellent in helping me stay positive and I also had help from Jonah Barrington, James Willstrop and Mike Way.
“But the good thing for the girls is that they are not, with the exception of Nouran, coming back from injury, they can focus on keeping in the best condition they can so that when the suspension is lifted and they can get back on court properly they are good to go.
Gohar in action during 2019 British Open final
“We know squash will be back and hopefully in the not too distant future – it is just a case of when. But as professionals you owe it to yourself to make sure you are prepared in the best way for that and the role of the coach in making sure that happens will be massive.”
As a multiple major title winner, Fitz-Gerald hopes that the return of professional squash will be sooner rather than later.
“Clearly we don’t know how long the COVID-19 pandemic is going to impact on the world and the big issue I would imagine is for players to be free to travel from one country to another.
“But one way round it for example may be to play this year’s British Open early in 2021 and push back the 2021 tournament to later next year.
“I know there is precedent for having two major tournaments for the one championship in the same calendar as in 2019 we had two world championships for the 2018/19 season and 2019/20 season and also similarly back in 2013/14 when Laura Massaro was British Open champion.
“So, there is a way round it but there is obviously still a possibility that this year’s tournament will go ahead in a slot later in the year which would be the best option.
“Although I would imagine that will be a challenge logistically, I am sure if there is a way it is safe to do so then the PSA will find it.
“Ultimately the British Open is the pre-eminent title and if there is a way to play it in 2020 then that has to be done – but when you see that there will be no Wimbledon this year in tennis that does underline the level of challenge that will need to be overcome to make it happen.”
With New Zealand branded COVID free on Monday and Australia emerging state by state from the lockdown, Fitz-Gerald says it’s time to start focusing on firing our game back up again.
Fitz-Gerald in action
She said: “New Zealand has just been announced COVID-free and we are opening up in Australia and that is great. It is very much being done on a state by state basis and in my state in Victoria we aren’t opening up until June 22, whereas Queensland is opening on June 11, but when you consider that Australia is the size of Europe then that shows how things will vary from state to state.
“It has been a mixed bag down under with the virus but everyone is very keen to get going again and get the doors open as of course the closure has produced financial pressures and clearly there will be casualties because of that.
“But you’ve seen the Unsquashable Premier Squash League being played and I think that has underlined that where there is a will there is way and that is the type of positive mindset that will serve squash well as we look to get our game going again.”