Squash queen King rises from rock bottom

Just a year after hitting rock bottom, world champion Joelle King will lead New Zealand’s strongest-ever squash team into next week's Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Suzanne McFadden reports.

It was exactly a year ago that Joelle King walked into a café in the English city of Hull and broke down at a table, sobbing for 45 minutes.

The Kiwi world champion squash star was at her lowest ebb. The day before she’d been beaten in the first round of the British Open by a young unseeded Egyptian, Mayar Hanay. It was her third bad tournament in a row.

"Probably the three worst tournaments of my career”, King says.

With a full rainbow set of Commonwealth Games medals and two doubles world titles to her name, King was on the verge of tossing away her racquet and walking out on the game she’d loved for 20 years.

But the man sitting opposite her in that café, English coaching guru Hadrian Stiff, helped to convince her otherwise.

Having exchanged a few emails, it was King’s first proper meeting with Stiff, and she’s not ashamed to admit she was in “an absolute tizz”.

“I’d come to a point in my career where I was struggling. So I asked myself ‘where to from here’? I decided I had to be all-in or all-out. Either throw yourself back into it, open every door and walk through it. Or leave and no longer be frustrated,” she says.

“It was the toughest time I’ve ever been through to be honest.”

More torturous, even, than 2014, when she ruptured her Achilles tendon after winning bronze at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

This time, her ailing form and “a few things off the court” were conspiring against her. “It was also probably the lack of excitement in the training I was doing,” she says. “A change in environment was what I was looking for, without knowing.”

So King approached Stiff, coach of some of the world’s top players from his base in Bristol.

“I remember walking into the café to meet him. I just broke down. I was sure he was thinking ‘This is why I only coach male players… what am I getting myself into here!’ But we talked and he said ‘Let’s just get on court and see where it takes us’. The first session we were on court for two-and-a-half hours, and it felt like 40 minutes.

“It was something completely different than I’d ever done before coaching-wise. It’s hard to explain, but it was completely left-field.”

The change in King’s mental and physical approach to squash was immediate. After 10 days in Bristol, she made it through to the second round of her next tournament, the Women’s World Championship in Egypt. It was a modest improvement, but she felt something good was happening.

“Now when I’m on the court, I feel like this is where I belong."

- Joelle King

“For the first time in a while, I was excited again. I wanted to get going again. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to climb back up. It really needed to happen - it led me to greater things.”

These past seven months have been like a second wind for King, building what she calls the best year of her career so far.

She began the international season in Manchester in August the best way possible, claiming two more world titles – successfully defending both the women’s doubles with Amanda Landers-Murphy, and the mixed doubles with Paul Coll. In February, she beat world champion Raneem El Welily to win the $US50,000 Cleveland Classic.

Two weeks later, she triumphed over El Welily again to reach her first World Series final, at the $US250,000 Windy City Open in Chicago.

“Like fine wine, I’m getting better with age,” the 29-year-old says.

She lost in the final in an epic five-set battle with world No 3 Nour El Tayeb – yes, Egyptians rule the world of women’s squash.

Currently ranked seventh in the world, King goes into her third Commonwealth Games next week in an exceptional position. She’s seeded No.2 in the women’s singles, in which she won bronze in 2014. And she’s top seed, with Landers-Murphy, in the women’s doubles, and No.1 in the mixed doubles, again with Coll. He's the world No. 11 men’s singles player, and is also seeded second at these Games.

“It’s nice to see on paper, but they’re just numbers really,” King says.

“You can made the big mistake of assuming you are going to win a medal, and I certainly won’t be resting on my laurels. The great thing is it means I’ll probably play all of my matches on the glass court.”

Squash on the Gold Coast will be played on courts set up inside Oxenford Studios in the grounds of Movie World. The main court will be four walls of glass.

If all goes according to plan, King will play on every day of the 10-day Commonwealth Games – first in the singles, then the two doubles competitions. It’s the way it’s always been for her at the Commonwealths, and she’s not daunted by it.

“To be honest I feel physically better than I did at 20. That comes with maturity, knowing your body, what training works for you. I’m a lot clearer and self-assured in my decisions, too,” she says.

At her first games in Delhi in 2010, King teamed up with Jaclyn Hawkes to win gold in the women’s doubles, before returning straight back to the court to take silver in the mixed doubles with Martin Knight.

“Squash is taking our strongest New Zealand team ever in terms of medal potential. Squash is one of those sports we’ve tracked well in, but it’s never been mainstream. So it’s really nice for the squash community to feel excited about it. I think it’s going to be one hell of a time on the Gold Coast,” King says.

She loves living in the Games village, taking inspiration from elite athletes from myriad sports.

“One of my favourite things to do is sit in the food hall and try to guess what sport people do from their body types. That’s one of the interesting thing with squash – there’s not one kind of ideal body type. Short, tall, strong, slim. There are lots of different attributes you need to play squash,” she says.

King’s decent height – 176cm – is definitely one of her strong points on the squash court. On the streets of her hometown of Cambridge, she’s sometimes mistaken for a Silver Fern.

“But I’m not even tall compared to them!” she laughs. “People recognise my face and say, ‘You’re the…. netballer? And I say ‘No, squash.’”

But she does look up to one Silver Fern in particular. King is friends with Leana de Bruin, who played 104 netball tests for New Zealand. She also lives in Cambridge, but is soon off to captain the Adelaide Thunderbirds in Australia’s super league.  

“I’ve given Leana some sessions on the squash court which she loved, especially the speed and agility side. And she was really good,” says King.

“We ask each other about training, and travelling – it’s always very honest. We’ve been through a lot of the same things. It’s good to share those stories and know that you’re not alone. And I love her passion and drive for her sport.”

Like de Bruin, King isn’t ready to retire yet. Although she says starting a family, with her husband Ryan Shutte, is on the cards: “It could be a few years away yet. I’m 29 now, but I still feel there are many more things to come in squash. It’s exciting,” she says.

“I feel like I’m a completely, unbelievably-different player. Even my whole demeanour is different. When you believe in something it gives you confidence.

“Now when I’m on the court, I feel like this is where I belong.”

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