Court in the act

Laura Massaro just became the first woman in
squash to win a second British Open in 66 years.
In this interview first published in 2014 she explains
why you might have missed the news

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“It’s really hard for people to give you recognition when they don’t know what you do on a day-to-day basis,” points out Chorley-born Laura Massaro, who despite not being a household name, is ranked number one in Europe in her sport and number two in the world.

British squash itself is currently the best in the world, thanks to Massaro and her male counterpart, Sheffield’s Nick Matthew, but it rarely finds its way into the public eye. This, in part, can be attributed to the fact that traditionally it is considered a rather poor spectator sport. The action takes place in a box, for a start, leaving the players with their backs to any potential audience, and the ball, which travels at around 160mph and is about 4cm in diameter, can be tricky to follow.

Aware of the game’s limitations however, the World Squash Federation has implemented measures to ensure the sport is more watchable. Big games are now hosted on all-glass show courts and high definition cameras are more adept at capturing the action.

“We’re a minority sport and you sort of know that when you go into being a professional squash player,” says Massaro, admitting she finds it frustrating at times. “But at the moment I think things are really positive – I can’t really complain too much.” And she doesn’t.

National squash coach David Pearson was quoted as saying that no one appreciates the work Massaro has put in to get to where she is in her game. But she doesn’t agree she’s under-appreciated. She admits she came in under the radar, competing with girls who may have had more of a talent for the sport, but she worked hard and now she is enjoying the fruits of her labour. Meanwhile, despite narrowly missing out on making it into the 2012 Olympics the sport itself is gaining more recognition, largely thanks to the level of gameplay Massaro and her colleagues are bringing to the court.

She is speaking from the National Squash Centre in Manchester, a legacy of the 2002 Commonwealth Games that she says has been instrumental in her success.

“We’ve had so many successful women in squash in the last 10, 20 years”

“At the time I was just turning pro and didn’t really realise how much that would affect me in my career. Growing up and being able to train here has just been amazing.”

Today she is there not to train but, rather appropriately, to hear the team announcements for this year’s Commonwealth Games, which begin towards the end of this month. Massaro says she will be giving everything she’s got to get on the podium in Glasgow and it seems highly possible, given the wave of success the 30 year old has had over the past 12 months.

In March Massaro won the women’s world title in Malaysia, beating reigning champion Nicol David on her home ground, and simultaneously becoming the first British woman in history to hold it alongside the British title, which she won in 2013.

“I didn’t know that until I won the world title and then I was told no one had ever held them at the same time, which was a bit crazy really. To look back on the women’s game and think of all the great players that we’ve had in the past, and to be the only one to do that was really surprising and something that I’m really proud of.”

After enjoying two months with the accolade, Massaro defended her British Open title in Hull. She spoke at the time about how she felt her win in Malaysia was partly due to the overwhelming pressure there was on David to win on home ground but says she didn’t feel the same pressure on British soil.
Massaro did make it to the final against David and narrowly lost, a loss she says, with characteristic positivity, she can’t take as a bad one.

“I played the best that I could play that day and so did she. The game was at a really high level and really good quality. If you both go out there and perform the best you can then you can’t really come off having any regrets.”

Rather than dwelling on her losses Massaro seems to put her energy into things she can change, like improving the women’s game at these events. Despite the level of gameplay delivered in women’s squash, their first-round matches weren’t scheduled on the glass show-court at the British Open, but a mile down the road, on a conventional plaster court at Hull University.

“The trouble is that Squash TV, which is such an amazing platform, is unfortunately owned by PSA, which is the men’s sport.” For televisual purposes then, the men’s games have to be played on the show-court and Massaro and her peers are keen to voice their feelings about this.

“The only way to resolve the issue is to get the tournament to put on an extra day, which obviously costs a lot more money, so our point was to show the sponsors that the women’s game is at the best it’s ever been and showcase it as well as we possibly can. And maybe if they were a little bit more aware of how the women were feeling, the money might be made available. We have to try and improve things year on year.”

Generally, she is happy with the steps being made and is modest about the part she is playing in that. Last year the women’s event was initially dropped from the world championships and Massaro, who says she found the situation distressing, wrote to the England Squash and Racketball chief executive for an explanation – becoming instrumental in having it reinstated before she went on to win it. The event was part-funded by Manchester City Council and the decision was made for financial reasons but since then she says the relationship with England Squash and Racketball has gone from strength to strength and the women’s prize funds are catching up to the men’s.

While Massaro continues to fight for equality for women on the squash court, at home she has immersed the men in her life in the women’s game. Her younger brother Chris Lengthorn grew up with her playing and is now head coach at the National Squash Centre, while her husband, Danny, is also her coach.

Massaro sometimes finds it difficult to switch off from squash but despite it now being her profession, she says she still thinks of it as a hobby and it’s not a chore to talk about it at home. She and her husband don’t consciously take squash-free time, instead making the most of the lifestyle it affords them – him being able to join her on most of her trips. Delhi, Malaysia, New York and Chicago are just some of the exciting destinations Massaro has travelled to in her career so far but, as well as making the most of the perks of the job, she is passionate about using her success for the good of her hometown.

In April, Massaro and her brother organised and hosted the Courtcare Open at the David Lloyd Centre in Chorley. The siblings raised a £6,000 prize fund for the WSA professional women’s only tournament and welcomed players from Brazil, Australia, the US and Argentina as well as homegrown talent such as England teammate Sarah Kippax, who went on to win the event.

Based in Halifax, Kippax adds to the impressive number of professional squash players hailing from the north. In addition to the National Squash Centre in Manchester, Massaro attributes this to the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. With these fantastic facilities, as well as public interest growing as a result of local talent, she hopes more girls and young women, in particular, will take an interest in the game.

“Hopefully I can be a role model for someone. The girls that are coming through in the juniors now have got someone they can look up to, which is exactly what I had growing up. We’ve had so many successful women in squash in the last 10, 20 years that there’s always been someone to really look up to and I guess the strength in that is bigger than ever.”

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