By RJ Mitchell
England’s Sarah-Jane Perry has revealed her determination to use her triumph at the CIB Black Ball Open as the launchpad to an all-out New Year assault on the summit of the PSA World Tour rankings.
The World No.6’s triumph in Cairo saw her dispatch World No.4 Camille Serme and World No.5 Hania El Hammamy, who many see as the next future long term global ruler of the women’s game. The PSA Gold event was also the biggest tournament Perry has won and one which boasted an entry list that included all of the game’s top 16 ranked players.
The England No.1 was also keen to pay a glowing tribute to the key role her coach Rob Owen has had in helping to orchestrate her biggest triumph. But now as she looks forward to 2021, Perry admits that the belief she has garnered from her golden moment in the land of the Pyramids has reinforced her determination to add more major titles to her resume after too often suffering near misses when it mattered most.
“It has been my goal for a while to win a big title and I have made a British Open final and a Commonwealth Games final and also a few semi-finals. Now at last, I have won a big tournament and I have taken so much from my victory at the Black Ball Open,” she said.
“But what it has done is given me a platform. Going forward I am not going to be happy with the semis, my first target is the top four and now that I have the belief, I feel I can go on and make the top two 2 and ultimately, target the No.1, that has got to be the ultimate goal.
“The bottom line is that I will be pushing myself as far as I can and see how far that takes me.”
Having come into the Black Ball on the back of a shock straight game defeat by World No.35 Farida Mohamed in the second round of the CIB Egyptian Open and three successive defeats in the pool stages of the CIB World Tour Finals, Perry was delighted to silence her doubters in the most emphatic fashion possible.
“Some people had been suggesting that I was in bad form after my early loss in the Egyptian Open, but Rob [Owen] and I discussed it and we both felt it was just bad day at the office and that happens. What was important was that I didn’t fixate on it,” said Perry.
Perry waiting in the wings prior to her semi-final clash in Cairo
“So, I put in a very strong training block after the Egyptian Open and absolutely everything that needed to be done was done and all boxes were ticked. My conditioning was excellent, my nutrition spot on and my movement was a lot better, so I knew that I had done all the right things and that hopefully that would pay off. Thankfully, it did.
“It wasn’t a case of playing my best squash all the time and in many ways that made winning the Black Ball so much more satisfying. I felt like mentally I really came through strongly. My resolve was excellent the whole way through. I didn’t panic or get frustrated when things were not going my way, I just kept trying to find a way to stay positive. That has been a factor that has let me down in the past; I’ve worked extremely hard to address it.
“The Black Ball may not have officially been a Platinum tournament but it was in all but name as all top 16 players played it. Obviously to come through the quarters and semis against Camille [Serme] and Joelle [King], who, although I have beaten both of them, my record has not been favourable against either, was really pleasing. Then to beat Hania [El Hammamy] in the final, who many are predicting will be the next long term No.1, was massive.
“But five matches in five days was really challenging and obviously playing a 74-minute semi with Joelle and then having to back that up against Hania in the final and go five sets was really tough. But I did it.”
When it came to the final itself, Perry had to come from two games down and survive match balls at 10-8 down in a nerve shredding fourth game, before triumphing after an epic 75-minute encounter with Hania El Hammamy. The England No.1 provided a fascinating insight into her biggest career victory.
“I think the key for me was that although I lost the second game to go two games down, I had started to get a foothold and I was back in the match, as, to be honest, in the first game I was definitely off the pace.
“Yet even after losing that second, I was able to draw on the experience that I have of coming back from two games down, I have had to do that a few times during my career with the most recent being in Manchester.
“When you are two down you are concentrating on doing everything you can to get back into the match, to fight your way back bit by bit and the last thing you have on your mind is winning it. But the big thing for me was that I started to notice the crowd was going quiet.
“Obviously with the match being in Hania’s backyard in Egypt the support was there for her and slowly, as I started to get back into the game, started to turn the tables and take a bit of control, they went quiet and I knew that in this case silence really was golden.”
Yet as SJ admitted defeat was perilously close in that enthralling fourth game.
“Perhaps the key part was the fourth game when Hania had match balls at 10-8 and then in a blink of an eye I had won the game 12-10 to level things and I could really feel the tension in the crowd, and I took a lot of encouragement from that.
“For me I felt that in the fifth game I found a better balance, was more effective in getting the ball into the corners, played smarter and also took more control of the middle of the court. Also, as I have gotten further into my career, I am at peace with the attacking game I play, the decisions I make on the court and the importance of taking calculated risks.
Perry (right) in action against El Hammamy (left) in the Black Ball final
“The shot I hit at 9-9 in the fifth was a shot I’ve practiced many times and I was balanced and in the perfect position to play the shot. I knew that if I executed it properly that there was a good chance, she wouldn’t read it and therefore had a bigger margin for error than playing the straight drop.
“I feel like I have improved my understanding a lot in this respect and, also, that my focus has got a lot stronger. If things are not going how I want I will put my energy into staying positive and not let the situation get to me.
“So, I was just determined to leave everything on the court, to lay down a marker and let the younger players coming through, who think they are stronger physically and are better players, know, I am going to keep pushing and am just not going to go away.”
Modest and generous in victory, Perry was keen to shower words of praise on Hania El Hammamy, her beaten opponent in the final
“It can be difficult when you have had match balls and lost them to then regroup. Hania has not had that experience whereas it is something that I went through a lot early in my career.
“But she is a fantastic athlete, and she will learn from this and in the long term it is a match that will stand her in good stead.”
But Perry has no doubt about the pivotal role her long-term coach Rob Owen has had on a triumph that sends her into the New Year as the form female player on the PSA World Tour.
“Rob is just an incredible tactician and observer of our sport. He sees things that people who have been watching squash for years just don’t get and whether it is my opponent or what I’m doing he can spot things that prove vital,” she said.
“But the other great thing with Rob is that he is always honest and that is something I have appreciated from day one. If there is something, he has to share with you then you know he is doing that to improve you and his attention to detail is second to none and he has added more options to my game.
“At the Black Ball after every game we dissected things and that was invaluable, but I also have to say that as a feeder he is second to none and the quality of balls I have to get back on the training court are unbelievable.
“Really I can’t speak highly enough about the work Rob has done with me and about the positive impact he has had on me.”