By Chris McClintick
It was one of the biggest upsets in the long history of the British Junior Open. In January America’s Andrew Douglas, who two years ago placed twenty-second in the U17 division, upset the reigning world junior champion and BJO U19 top seed, Eain Yow Ng, in the round of sixteen. The result dominated headlines around the squash world, even as Douglas unfortunately lost in the next round.
The whole Team USA storyline put the world on notice. For the first time, sixteen Americans—including five unseeded players—progressed to the round of sixteen. Seven Americans advanced to the quarterfinals, topping a previous best of three U.S. quarterfinalists in 2016 and one in 2015. By tournament’s end, twelve of thirty-four U.S. players exceeded their seeding. Team USA had arrived.
Three years ago, building on the Regional Squad program, the US Squash Elite Development Program incorporated a first-annual Team USA trip to the BJO. The goal was to expose U.S. juniors to the world’s best in the U13, U15, U17 and U19 age divisions. For many players, the tournament is the pinnacle of international competition, particularly in U13, U15 and U17 divisions, which aren’t contested at the annual WSF World Junior Championships.
“The BJO shows our players the levels that they need to strive to and the variety of game styles that they will need to adapt to,” said Luke Butterworth, a coach for all three trips to Sheffield. “The BJO is the best of the best and provides inspiration and motivation for our players to take their games to new heights.”
While the BJO is an individual competition, one wouldn’t guess it the way Team USA’s players and coaches backed one another and guided each player through each match.
“Our team chemistry was unparalleled,” said Daelum Mawji, who achieved Team USA’s highest finish of third place in the U17 division as a 9/16 seed. “We acted as a team, not just individuals who traveled from the same country. We forged deep bonds, demonstrated by our enthusiastic support for our teammates and our pride wearing “USA” on our backs everywhere we went in England.”
In addition to Douglas, Mawji was one of seven players this year who were a part of the first BJO trip in 2015. At his first BJO, Mawji placed nineteenth in the U15 division.
“Two years ago, the general attitude was to simply play as hard as we could and to just have fun,” Mawji said. “However, this year the team had a more competitive edge. Many of us made it much further in the tournament than we had previously, and while we wanted to have fun, this year we went to win. This year I learned the power of belief. I believed in my physical abilities and mental strength, and focused on producing my best squash every moment I was on court.”
While strong main-draw performances stand out, the overall tournament experience helped all players to set new goals and realize potential whether for future trips to England or any other tournament.
“I learned a lot from my first BJO, but most of all I learned the importance of having confidence and hope before every single match,” said Stephanie Tan, who notched three wins on her unseeded U17 run to finish nineteenth. “Playing to win, and to win with confidence, is always better than playing defensively. My personal goals, as a result of my BJO experience, are to have more confidence in my ability, to learn more about how to move my opponent and ultimately to succeed as a strong top player one day.”
Of course, results aren’t everything. For some, the trip was their first across the pond or their first exposure to a foreign culture. The players mingled with other juniors from around the world—a big leap from the U.S. junior circuit.
“Team USA at the BJO flipped the script,” said Myles McIntyre, who finished thirteenth in the U15 division while unseeded, “by transforming us as traditional competitors in the U.S. into focused allies with a common goal: to win for each other. This feeling was palpable to all of us and something I will never forget.”
While this year’s BJO participants will continue to compete against each other at the National Juniors this spring, they will do so with a renewed respect for one another and their common goals as U.S. teammates. The results proved that Team USA can set their sights even higher on the world junior stage, and at the very least earned some respect when it comes to tournament seeding.
“The BJO trip was important because we proved that we are doing the right things within our national squads, regional programs and coach development,” said Bay Club of San Francisco pro Charlie Johnson, who traveled to Sheffield as a coach for the first time this year. “The results speak for themselves. When we look at our previous years we are improving. America was underrated as a squash country, but this year we proved to the world that we are there.”