Sport

Squash champion Tamika Saxby on rebuilding her game’s profile and finding that crucial sport–life balance. By Jack Kerr.
Credit: MYLES BENNELL

Hitting the wall: Tamika Saxby, 24, squash player

I tell people I’m a squash player and most of them go, “What’s that?” It’s hard. Squash was really big in the ’80s, but it’s gone through a restructure in recent years, and we’re now basically starting from scratch again, really having to build the sport back up and get the name back out there.

There’s not the prizemoney to make it possible to be a full-time professional squash player. The biggest competition we have is Windy City, in Chicago. Its prize pool is going up to $US250,000 for each of the men’s and women’s competitions. If you compare it to tennis, it’s never going to cut it, but for us having that prizemoney increase – it’s almost doubled – that’s a really big move.

There’s one tournament that gets played inside New York’s Grand Central station. A glass court gets set up in there, in the terminal. It’s pretty cool. You’re playing a pro-tournament and there’s just everyday passengers walking past this glass court. It’s a pretty amazing experience.

One of our biggest tournaments here in Australia only has a $10,000 prize pool. Which isn’t great, but we’re currently bouncing back, and hopefully in the next few years we’ll start to get some bigger events happening again. Squash Australia is doing a lot to promote it again and get people participating and involved.

I always felt like I was destined to play squash. I was pretty much born into it: my parents play, and within a couple of weeks of being born I was in the pram at tournaments where my sister was playing. But at the same time, having it there every day, it was hard. It was both a positive and a negative. You’ve got to find that balance between having a life, and being a kid, and becoming a professional athlete.

Because it was so popular in the ’80s, most squash centres are built on what is now prime real estate. Thirty years later, they are worth way more to developers than they are to court owners. So they come in with big million-dollar offers and most squash centres are being converted into gyms or apartments. My parents actually bought a squash centre in Coffs Harbour when I was seven, but they would never sell theirs. They are diehards. And their courts are busy all the time.

One of the great things about squash is there’s no perfect way to train for it. Because you need everything: you need to be fit, you need to be strong, and you’ve got to be quick. So I’ve got set running programs. I’ve got gym for strength. And then I’m usually on the court for at least a few hours every day. I try to do yoga and Pilates for injury prevention as well. Squash is hard on the body, so we’ve to keep our shoulders, hips, knees and back from getting injured. It’s a busy week of training.

It’s not just what I’m doing at training that matters: my happiness factor is really important, too. I moved overseas to Scotland for two years when I was 20, got sick and didn’t actually think I’d play again. When I moved back home, I thought I’d give it another go, play some tournaments, and I was really successful. I won five titles last year – that was a surprise! I was in a good place, and there was no expectation, no pressure. Honestly, the only difference between before I took time off and after was purely enjoying it.

Even in an individual sport, it’s definitely a team of people who are out there winning. Having a support network around you when you are playing sport is crucial. You can’t do it by yourself. You’ve got to have a good support network. There’s nothing like family. Having them around has definitely made a difference. 

Squash technique is the complete reverse of tennis. The grip is different. The swing is different: they come from down to up, we go from up to down. You move very differently as well: we’re on the same side as our opponent, and we move up and down the court, whereas tennis players mainly go crossways. They’re two very different sports. The only thing they have in common is they use a racquet and a ball. And even those are different. 

It kills me that squash isn’t in the Olympics. We’re in the World Games, which is like the second-tier Olympics, and that’s happening this year in July in Poland. I’ve been selected to go, which is great. But anything I can do to help get squash into the Olympics, I will do.

 

This week’s highlights…

AFL: North Melbourne v Adelaide Crows

Saturday 1.45pm (AEST), Blundstone Arena, Hobart 

• Netball: Vixens v Firebirds; Magpies v Lightning 

Saturday, 7pm and 8.45pm (AEST); Hisense Arena, Melbourne

• Motorsport: Perth SuperSprint – Supercars Championship, Race 8

Sunday, 2.15pm (AWST), Barbagallo Raceway, Perth

• NRL: Country v City

Sunday, 4pm (AEST), Glen Willow Regional Sports Stadium, Mudgee, NSW

• Soccer: A-League grand final: Sydney FC v Melbourne Victory 

Sunday, 5pm (AEST), Allianz Stadium, Sydney

• NRL: St George Illawarra Dragons v Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks

Friday, 6pm (AEST), UOW Jubilee Oval, Kogarah, NSW

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "Hitting the wall". Subscribe here.

Jack Kerr
is a journalist and documentary maker.

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