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Susan Devoy On Her Career And The Future of Squash In New Zealand

Written by RJ Mitchell

Susan Devoy stands second on the list of modern day British Open winners with eight titles to her credit and a further four World Opens that combine to credit the great Kiwi with 12 major titles and put her third in the major winners all-time list.

In recognition of Devoy’s exalted status PSA website was delighted to catch up with our sport’s only ‘Dame’, who ranks only behind the great Heather McKay and Malaysian legend Nicol David in the major winners list and has a very strong case to be considered the female game’s greatest ever performer.

Devoy’s British Open dominance started in 1984 with a rollercoaster four-set victory over Lisa Opie in which the latter’s fiery temperament added considerable spice to a match that was to be one of the most talked about of the decade.

It was the start of a run of seven consecutive British Open titles, while New Zealander’s haul of four World Opens would surely have been at least doubled had the worlds been played in 1984 and then not been uncontested in 1986, 1988 and 1991, when Devoy was still very much a dominant World No.1.

Devoy retired at the relatively early age of 29 to start a family and her amazing zest for life was impressively not confined to treading the boards when she took a six months sabbatical to walk the length and breadth of ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’ to raise the huge sum, in 1988 terms, of $500,000 for the Muscular Dystrophy Society.

After her squash retirement, a six-year stint as Race Relations Commissioner for her homeland, confirmed Devoy’s passionate interest and concern for her New Zealand’s culture and society.

So there is clearly no place better to start, as George Orwell would surely agree, than 1984 and that match with Devoy’s greatest rival the spikey Englishwoman Lisa Opie:

“My first British title in 1984 was pretty special for me and of course it was ‘that’ match with Lisa Opie, when she gave the two-fingered salute and threw her racket out the court and well it was just pretty memorable for so many reasons,” recalled Devoy.

“But when you win your first major title it is always a gateway moment, it gives you the belief, you have the knowledge you can do it and it is in you. Then the key is to get out there and do it again, back it up as quickly as you can and I was lucky enough to come back and defend it and then keep the run going all the way to seven in the British.

“On the other hand with the worlds my sweetest victory was my second, in 1987, when I again got the better of Lisa and this time it was on my home soil in New Zealand, in Auckland and yeah that one had extra significance and was definitely the sweetest of my
four world titles. To win a World Championship when it’s held in your country, well it can’t get any better than that.”

As she looked back over a career that saw her face six different rivals in her 13 major finals it is no doubt that the Kiwi reserves a special reverence for the foe she would face the most in title matches, Lisa Opie, who was to be on the wrong end of four final defeats spread evenly over British and World Championships.

“I played some great players and I had a lot of competition because the ladies game was really strong in the eighties and going into the nineties. Liz Irving, Lucy Soutter, Martin Le Moignan and then the younger girls like Cassie Jackman, Sarah Fitz-Gerald and of course Michelle Martin, but I met Lisa Opie in more major finals than anyone else.

“We played each other in my first two world finals in Dublin and Auckland and in the British in my first final in 1984 and again in 1986 and I was lucky enough to come out on top on all of these.

“Our styles were opposites and Lisa had all the touch in the world and could take the pace off the ball and do all kinds of things with it and when she was on she gave me all the trouble I could cope with and more.

“Of course, there was that first British Open final where she lost it and to this day, we still have a laugh about it, and it is great to have that shared history with someone. But I think Lisa made me dig deeper and work harder and that all helped me evolve.”

In an echo of Raneem El Welily’s decision to retire at the top earlier this summer, Devoy quit in 1992, going out in a blaze of glory by securing both British and World titles that year in which she vanquished an old foe in Martine Le Moignan for a final time in the former and dispatched the game’s next big thing in Michelle Martin in the latter.

Yet reflecting on that decision which was borne from the tragedy of a miscarriage, there is perhaps a hint of regret: “I retired in 1992 to have a family and maybe if I hadn’t had four strapping boys in five years I might have reconsidered!” joked Devoy before she continued:

“Retiring at 29 is still pretty young and of course when Raneem [El Welily] quit earlier this summer it did take me back to when I called time on my career. But I had been at the top for a long period and although it wasn’t motivation that was the problem staying interested really was.

“The other issue was that I’d had a miscarriage in ’91 when I hadn’t known I had been pregnant during the Australian Open and when I came back to New Zealand to play my home championship. My parents had come over and my father had a massive stroke and then I had a miscarriage and after that I had to take time off and accept it wasn’t going to be my year.”

But while 1992 was the year Devoy finally called it a day, 1988, when at the peak of her powers, had provided a break from the game she dominated that was of an entirely different nature: “In 1988 I decided I was going to walk the length of New Zealand for charity. I got the idea from the walks that Sir Ian Botham had done over in the UK and I did 2,500 miles in seven weeks and raised $500,000 dollars for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and back then that was no mean achievement and no small amount.

“I was very proud of that achievement but it didn’t do my squash a whole lot of good, wasn’t too clever for the fast twitch muscles and it probably cost me the 1989 world title to [Martine] Le Moignan but I literally chose my path and I don’t regret that. I met a load of interesting people, saw my country from tip to top and had a life experience I still treasure. But my biggest achievement are my four wonderful sons and my amazing husband John [Oakley] who have made my life so complete.”

In retirement Devoy’s path has proven equally interesting as she became Race Relations Commissioner for New Zealand that saw her in a role that was by her own admission “pretty polarising” and, at times, difficult.

The eight-time British Open winner said: “Some people had pigeon-holed me as a squash player or a sports jock. I’d been retired 20 years and I’d done a lot of other things that made me perfectly capable, but we did a hell of a lot of good things on limited resources.

“Yet it was both a contentious and a draining job and of course when anything was said that was to do with race you were the first port of call for a comment. So, believe me it was a tough gig over my six years in the seat.

“We are a multicultural society in New Zealand and one of the most diverse countries in the world now, and yet we haven’t sorted out our own biculturalism and we have still got a lot of work to do.”
But when it came to the guiding light of her own celebrated career Dame Susan has no hesitation in sighting an Egyptian influence: Dardir El Bakary, who was brought to New Zealand as the nation’s first professional squash coach.

Devoy admits it is a role that needs reprising in her homeland: “Dardir was a game changer for squash in New Zealand and like a lot of players of my generation I owe him so much. We need someone like him in New Zealand again because the game has changed and ironically, it’s dominated by the Egyptians!

“In New Zealand we maybe aren’t in a position to have a full-time coach here, but we could bring some experts over or send our coaches overseas to give our younger players the best opportunities to foot it with the rest of the world.”

But having opened the country’s foremost squash facility in 2011, the Devoy Squash and Fitness Centre, at which she can regularly be seen holding 6am coaching sessions, Susan’s passion for the sport she dominated in the 80s and early 90s still burns bright just as her self – deprecation shines through.

“I wouldn’t say I am a coach; I’m more a trainer and I can certainly run you ragged!” she laughed before adding: “But I’m delighted to have the Devoy Squash and Fitness Centre up and running, and we have six glass back courts, are the biggest club in New Zealand, hosted the World Junior Championships here in 2017 and will soon begin work on a stadium court which will help us host the 2021 Men’s World Team Championships and that really excites me.”

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