By Chris McClintick
Before a ball was hit at the 2014 SHOP.CA World Squash Federation Women’s World Team Squash Championship, former International Olympic Committee Vice President Dick Pound presented the world’s top women with a message of hope.
“As I look around the room at the many delegates who will participate in these championships, I cannot help thinking, as a member of the International Olympic Committee, that squash should be in the Olympic Games,” said Pound, who at one point was a nationally-ranked Canadian squash player.
“I will do my best to make that dream a reality. Let’s say that if that happens, it will be a direct result of the high level of the women’s game, not those of the men, which will make the difference. So you have both opportunity and responsibility.
“Your play here this week, under these splendid conditions, will help those of us who support squash to make international progress in the off-the-court arena.
“Carry your hopes with you—and bring back good memories of your visit to Canada.”
With those sentiments, the biennial championship commenced at the luxurious White Oaks Resorts in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, on December 1.
Olympic hopes were not the only aspirations harbored by sixth-seeded Team USA ahead of the nineteenth iteration of the team championship. The four-player team—led by Head Coach Paul Assaiante, player-coach Natalie Grainger, and conditioned by trainer Jeremy Mayer—targeted a fifth-place finish or better, which would top Team USA’s best finish of sixth place in 1979 and 1983.
The U.S. team was a mix of youth and experience with an age-gap of twenty-years between seventeen-year-old Sabrina Sobhy, and former world No. 1 Grainger. Sabrina’s elder sister of four years, Amanda, was set for her first professional competition since the best Women’s Squash Association results of her career propelled her to world No. 10 last summer. Twenty-one-year-old Olivia Blatchford also carried momentum into the tournament with two professional titles this fall including her largest title in September.
The campaign in Niagara began flawlessly with a clean sweep of [17/20]-seeded Guatemala on the opening day of action in Group C. Day two presented formidable opponents in the form of southern and northern neighbors, [13/16]-seeded Mexico and eleventh-seeded Canada, which meant the first squad rotation of the tournament. The Sobhy sisters and Blatchford eased past Mexico in the morning match, dropping just one game in four matches.
With second place in Group C on the line, behind Malaysia, and a spot in the top eight, Grainger stepped in for Sabrina in Team USA’s first match on the ASB GlassCourt in front of a partial, boisterous, Canadian crowd. Regardless of which court the hosts played on, an army of chanting, vuvuzela-blowing, maple leaf-clad fans followed to support their women.
Up first was Blatchford who squelched the home supporters’ cheers with a clinical three-game victory over Danielle Letourneau. The No. 1 match between Amanda and world No. 31 Samantha Cornett followed, with Amanda dominating the opener, 11-4, before Cornett stormed back to win the second 11-7 to galvanize a now raucous home crowd. Undeterred, Amanda then silenced the home crowd by winning the third 11-4, and edging out the match 11-9 in the fourth. The next day, Team USA completed pool play with a loss against world No. 1 Nicol David’s Malaysia.
The U.S. drew fourth-seeded Hong Kong in day four’s quarterfinals. Like the U.S., a win for Hong Kong would also ensure their best team finish. Streamed live to an international audience, Hong Kong’s higher ranked Joey Chan and Annie Au made history with a pair of, three-game, 30-minute victories over Blatchford and Amanda Sobhy respectively, consigning the U.S. to the 5/8 playoffs.
However, with the opportunity to record Team USA’s best finish still intact, the Americans recalibrated with a ruthless victory over eighth-seeded Ireland, thanks to three-game victories by Amanda and Blatchford—leaving fifth-seeded France as the only remaining hurdle for Team USA in the 5/6 playoff final on the last day of match play. A 3-1-2 order of play handed Grainger her first match of the tournament that wasn’t a dead rubber, with Amanda Sobhy lining up second against world No. 6 Camille Serme in the follow-on match.
Facing Laura Pomportes, twelve years Grainger’s junior, Grainger left no doubt that she still has “world No. 1 ball striking” in her repertoire. The 2013 U.S. Champion shocked the world No. 55 in just twenty-five minutes—11-7, 11-7, 11-7—to give the U.S. the advantage, and Amanda the opportunity to make history. Inspired by her player-coach’s performance, Amanda went blow for blow against her top ten-ranked opponent, narrowly winning the first game 12-10. The Harvard senior’s confidence and level of play alike rose in the second game, which she won 11-7. After Serme tinned match ball at 10-5 in the third, Sobhy dropped her racquet and looked to the sky in joy. A jubilant U.S. team swarmed their teammate on court, knowing that they had just made history.
Shortly thereafter, in the team final on the glass court—and in a display of the highest level of women’s squash—England defeated first-time finalists Malaysia 2-1 to win the championship for the seventh time.
Days after the championship’s conclusion, the IOC voted to abolish the rule against an artificial limit of a twenty-eight sports, opening the door for squash to join the Olympic Games—and perhaps making the opening remarks by Dick Pound prophetic.