On a mission to benefit squash
Joelle King doesn't mind mixing it with the blokes.
However, New Zealand's top-ranked women's squash player couldn't quite get over the top of New Zealand men's No3 Evan Williams at last night's exhibition match at the Nelson Squash Club.
Williams, who was a late replacement for injured New Zealand No1 Martin Knight, won the match 3-2 in front of about 100 spectators. He had been playing at the Victorian Open in Melbourne when he got the call, joining King for yesterday's exhibition match and coaching session with some of Nelson's junior players.
It was the second time they had met on court, Williams also winning their previous encounter two years ago in Hamilton.
King regularly plays in the men's and women's draws on the national tournament circuit, so isn't fazed by playing against men. She's the 12th-ranked woman in the world and Williams 119th in the men's rankings.
She admitted to varying responses from male opponents, although appreciated competing against top-ranked players like Williams because they showed her plenty of respect on court.
Williams was in Nelson for a similar promotion last year with Knight as part of an ongoing campaign, initiated by Knight, to get squash into communities throughout the country. And it's something the players enjoy.
"The reason it's so successful [is that] Martin runs it really well," said Williams.
"He makes sure that every person who's involved gets a lot out of it. It's broadening everyone's horizons on the game and getting everyone to see the top players."
King said it was important to interact with the junior players and recalled, as a girl, attending a coaching clinic with New Zealand's former world No1 Leilani Joyce (now Rorani).
"You just never know what that can do for some of these kids," she said.
"I remember when I was young and Leilani Joyce came to my club ... and just being around these people, it kind of makes you think, `oh, I can do that too'.
"You just explain to them that hard work pays off really, and they just get joy out of being on the court with you. It works in a lot of ways."
King's next major competitive assignment is the Australian Open in August, a title she won in 2009, and is now a world series event, "so it's quite a big event on the women's calendar".
Williams is building up for the New Zealand nationals in New Plymouth in August.
Both were satisfied that there has been a growth in playing numbers throughout the country.
"One thing I've definitely noticed travelling around [the country] is the number of juniors that are playing," said King. "At Alexandra, they had something like 50 juniors ... Invercargill had 65. It feels like the sport is having another surge. Most club memberships are going up."
Increasing the sport's profile at international level was an ongoing process. Squash is already a Commonwealth Games event, King having won gold with Jaclyn Hawkes in the women's doubles, and silver with Knight in the mixed doubles at Delhi.
The focus now is to get it included at the Olympics. "There's a big push happening at the moment because next year we find out if we're in for 2020," said King. "A couple of times we've come very close. If it does make it into the Olympics, I think we'll see quite a dramatic change [in profile]."
- © Fairfax NZ News