Legends Play in the World Masters Championships

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 4.37.47 PM
Two players from the U.S. contingent took home winner’s hardware when Michael Gough (top left) upset the top seed in the M75 in the semis before holding on for a four-game win in the final, and Natalie Grainger (bottom left in pink) claimed the W35. Unfortunately, Grainger’s opposition in the final, Melissa Martin (pitured with Grainger) succumbed to a calf injury in the final. Martin’s husband, Brett (top right in green), reached the M50 final but fell to Willie Hosey (pictured with Brett Martin). For Sarah Fitz-Gerald, her first masters title came in the W45 (pictured with Melissa and Brett Martin below)). Will Carlin and Julie Kesler (below bottom) played well but took on coaching roles for the American contingent as the event went on.

By Will Carlin

“Brett Martin is playing.”

Those were the words on many people’s lips when Martin’s name appeared as top seed in the M50 draw of the World Squash Federation’s World Masters Squash Championships in Hong Kong. Martin, once ranked number two in the world behind Jansher Khan, was one of the biggest names in the draw, and even fellow competitors were eager to see him play.

Martin wasn’t the only legend competing, however; former world No. 1’s Sarah Fitz-Gerald (W45) and Natalie Grainger (W35), Geoff Davenport (M55), Craig Van der Wath (M45) and one-time victor over Jansher, Craig Rowland (M40), also were among the 750 players from more than fifty countries who made the trek to China.

The combination of heat and humidity in Hong Kong almost was stultifying, but the air inside the two host facilities—the Hong Kong Football Club and the Hong Kong Squash Centre—was cool and the squash was sublime.

Perhaps the best match of the tournament was the M50 semifinal between Martin and Peter Hill from Singapore. After Martin almost won the first game at zero, Hill recovered to take advantage of Martin’s suspect fitness and made it a match. The two showed off ridiculous racquet skills, phenomenal retrieving, and series of cat-and-mouse front-court rallies often punctuated with awesome power. Martin eventually won in five games, but it was costly.

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 4.38.23 PMIn the finals, against the popular Irishman, Willie Hosey, Martin tweaked his hamstring early in the match and was never a factor. To be fair, Martin would have had to be near full strength against the hyperactive Hosey, who won his second consecutive world title without losing a game.

Injuries are part of the deal as the body ages, but it had to be frustrating for the Martin family when Brett’s wife, Melissa, also pulled a muscle in the W35 final against Natalie Grainger and had to retire after the first game.

Natalie’s first masters World Championship was won without the loss of a game, but it was her mother who may have been the family’s biggest star: Jean Grainger, the distinguished seventy-one-year-old South African, picked up her fourth World title with victory in the Women’s Over-70 championship in a five-game marathon over fellow South African, Sheena Worwood.

And while four world titles is a lot, five is more. Three players set individual masters records by winning their fifth World Titles: South African van der Wath (M45), England’s Averil Murphy (W65) and Australia’s Davenport (M55).

Sarah Fitz-Gerald, who won five world open titles, laid claim to her first masters title in the W45 in perhaps the most one-sided final by beating fellow Australian Sarah Nelson 3-0 in a sixteen-minute final.

The closest final featured one player looking for his third world title and another looking for number one. England’s Adrian Wright, the top seed in the M70, had won twice before and his progress to the final had nary a hiccup. His opponent was No. 2 seed Gerry Poulter of Canada (who has won the last two US 70+ titles). The match was a thrilling cliff-hanger that looked to be over when Poulter came back from 2-1 down and won the last five points of the fourth game.

Continuing his momentum, Poulter raced to an 8-2 lead in the fifth, when Wright suddenly got hot. Often ending points on his first touch of a rally, Wright guzzled points in bunches and closed the gap to take the match to overtime. Two shocking winners later, Wright had his third title in a row and Poulter, who had lost fifteen pounds in preparation for the event, just shook his head as the audience hooted and hollered.

Brett Martin knew what Poulter was feeling at the moment, but with a few hours of perspective after his own final loss, he was all smiles. “I wish I had played better in the final,” he said. “But it sure was fun to play in front of a big crowd again.”

The U.S. Takes Two

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 4.38.30 PMNatalie Grainger, originally from South Africa now living in Connecticut, and Michael Gough, now living in Georgia, took back to the U.S. two of the eighteen World titles up for grabs.

Their approaches couldn’t have been more different.

Grainger took the seventeen-hour flight a day before her first match, while Gough arrived almost a week in advance; Grainger was everywhere during the event, cheering on friends and family (her mom won her fourth World title in the W70), and taking in much of Hong Kong, while Gough said later that he saw only his hotel room and the squash courts as he focused completely on the task at hand; Grainger practiced a few times but spent most of her time on court playing her actual matches, while Gough practiced every morning before his matches.

To be fair, Grainger was the class of her draw. Her experience and stunningly smooth racquet skills were the envy of all who watched her play, male and female. Gough, on the other hand, knew that he was a contender, but to win, he was going to have to pull out all the stops.

Grainger won the W35 without much drama, winning every match 3-0, while Gough had to upset the number one seed in the semis and then hold on in a dramatic four-game victory in the finals of the M75.

The two titles were the first two World titles for players representing the U.S. (Sue Lawrence, who lives outside Philadelphia, has won two World titles as a resident of the U.S., but, officially, she represented Jamaica both times).

Grainger is just getting started in her masters journey and Gough already is planning his title defense. And, along with Lawrence, two other title contenders, Dominic Hughes and Richard Millman, didn’t play in Hong Kong, but will be playing in future events.

The U.S. titles are just beginning.