Exclusive by RJ Mitchell
IN an exclusive interview with PSA website, Heather McKay, the undisputed doyenne of the ladies’ game has enjoyed a walk down memory lane to take stock of her unrivalled collection of 16 consecutive British Open titles and the modern training methods that put here ahead of time and the left the rest of her rivals trailing during an unprecedented period of dominance spanning two decades.
Heather won the first of her British titles in 1962 and claimed her 16th and final title at squash’s emeritus championships in 1977 and lost only two matches in her entire career creating an incredible 19-year unbeaten record between 1962 and her retirement in 1981.
Heather also went on to win the inaugural World Open title in 1976, an emotional success which came on her home Australian soil in front of her family and friends before adding a second world championship in 1979.
The great McKay, who was also awarded an MBE for her achievements in the game, also went on to play a key coaching role at the Australian Institute of Sport with fellow Aussie squash immortal Geoff Hunt in the 1990s and with the game that she graced for two decades currently in suspension due to the Covid-19 pandemic, PSA website was delighted to relive these defining moments of ‘the’ stellar career in woman’s squash.
Heather recalled: “When I set out on my earliest trip to England back in 1962 for my first tilt at the British, I never expected to win it let alone go on to claim 16 titles consecutively.
“I hadn’t been selected in ’61 to make the trip to the UK as the Australian team to travel for it was picked from the state champions, although I had won the Australian title in 1960, yet I think that was actually the best thing for me as I wasn’t ready for that trip.
“It gave me an extra 12 months to train, develop my game and mature for being away from home for so long but in these days, when we were all amateurs, you had to raise money to help fund the trip and also rely on the support of your home association. For 14 of my 16 years as British champion the New South Wales Squash Association funded me, and I am eternally grateful to them for that.
“Winning the first title in ‘62 was a bit of a surprise as I met Fran Marshall, the defending champion, of England in the final and I think I had recently lost to her in five sets at the North of England and been happy to get that close.
“But when it came to the British final, I think all the tournaments and tough matches I had played on our tour had lifted my game to another level and I produced my best squash to beat Fran in three games.
“We went on to have quite a rivalry and played in five finals in total during my run, but we also became good friends as did most of the girls, so it was a great time.”
While the British Open, in the absence of a women’s world championship, enjoyed singular status as the game’s emeritus title, in 1976 the first women’s world championships were finally held in Brisbane and although Heather had scaled down her playing commitments by then she remained single-minded in her determination to lift the inaugural ladies global crown.
McKay in action
“It was a huge boost for the women’s game to get its own world championship in 1976. Obviously the British (Open) had always been considered as the tournament to win and for me it continues to be our foremost championship, but the fact of the matter is we desperately needed a world championship to really give the women’s game similar status with the men’s, so it definitely was a huge step forward for our game,” recalled Heather.
The first ever ladies world champion continued: “The fact the tournament was in Australia and being played in Brisbane made it very important for me and there is no doubt that with it being on Australian soil and the first world championship in the ladies game there was a great deal of extra significance to it.
“Obviously I had been in the game for so many years and by the time we got to ’76, I was in Canada coaching, but the minute I knew the worlds were going to be in Australia I started a very tough training regime, I was determined I would be ready and I really wanted that first world title to be mine.
“I developed my playing strategy for the tournament around my fitness and thankfully I made it through to the final where I met Marion Jackman and came home strongly in three games.
“That was right up there as a career highlight and a very proud moment for me to be the first women’s world champion and to win it on Australian soil with my friends and family there and in particular my late husband Brian, who played such an instrumental part in my success, well it couldn’t get any better.”
Heather has no doubt that her adherence to a training regimen that incorporated, the use of weights, sprint training and stretching had a significant part to play in her longevity as the undisputed women’s No.1 for 18 years.
She revealed: “I did train for squash and probably in terms of how serious I was about fitness I was the first to really pursue that with real dedication. I was definitely the first woman to incorporate weight training in my preparation, I always stretched, and I ran on the track.
“My husband Brian always made sure I trained and had an off season to prepare and he would always tell me “If you’ve not done the training don’t do the complaining” and throughout my career I did everything I could to make sure I was in the best shape I could be when I walked on to a squash court.
“I knew that if I was in a hum dinger of a match and I was feeling it then I had every confidence my opponent was in a worse state and when you have the inner confidence in your conditioning that gives you, it takes pressure off your game and it builds belief. That really counts when you have to dig deep at key moments in any big match.”
McKay inducted into the WISPA Hall of Fame, 1999
During a career spanning such a significant period of time and in which an unparalleled dominance of the game’s foremost championship was built Heather saw off a variety of challengers, yet the first lady of squash has nothing but warm words and affection for her former rivals.
Heather recalled: ““Every time I played the British it was a challenge and I faced many great players like Fran Marshall, Marion Jackman, and Anna Craven-Smith and they all provided me with different challenges.
“Particularly in my early years as champion I beat Fran Marshall in my first final when she was the defending champion and went on to play her in four finals in total and we became good friends.
“But while everyone wanted to win the British, we all got on well away from the court and I am lucky that I can look back and enjoy so many great shared memories with them.”
With the suspension of squash caused by the Covid-19 pandemic now extended into August Heather counselled caution when it came to any clamour to reschedule the British Open for a later date in 2020.
The ladies’ game’s greatest ever champion said: “I’d love to see the British Open played this year but it’s all about making sure that it’s played when it is safe to do so. The game is run so well by PSA now and I know that they will ensure we have the best British Open we can have when it is the right time for it to be played in a safe environment.
“But when I look at the strides squash has made since I played it does fill me with a lot of pride, we have a great game and it is one that is growing all the time and I am 100% confident it will come back even stronger when we get through this challenging time.”