What a racket: youngest of eight becomes squash pro
Kaitlyn Watts was barely out of high school when she became a professional squash player this year. Off to her fifth world championship, she has her big Palmerston North family to thank for embedding her love of the sport.
As the youngest of eight siblings, it was pretty much inevitable that Kaitlyn Watts would just go with the flow.
All of her five brothers and two sisters – as well as both of her parents - played squash. On weekends, the Palmerston North family would pack into their people mover and drive to a town in the central North Island, where they would all play in a tournament.
“They were good times,” Watts recalls.
At first, Watts used the squash courts as a playground. But, when she first picked up a racket with any seriousness, at the age of eight, her skills were already ingrained.
Around the time that her eldest brother Joseph began playing squash professionally, reaching No. 170 in the world, nine-year-old Kaitlyn was starting to make her own way in the sport.
She won the national under 11 girls’ title and, not long after, she was travelling to play in tournaments around the world, having being spotted by New Zealand’s greatest squash player, Dame Susan Devoy.
Today, in her first year out of high school, the 18-year-old “baby” of the Watts family is a full professional, living and breathing squash. She’s already represented New Zealand at four world championships and a Youth Olympics, and has set herself the goal of being among the best in the world.
Not only is she following in the lunging footsteps of her squash hero, Joelle King – who this week won the Manchester Open - she’s already playing alongside her.
But Watts laughs that she’s yet to beat her big brother Joseph, who doesn’t play as much these days. It may only be a matter of time.
A few months ago, Watts left her childhood home in Palmerston North, to live and train in Auckland. It was a big, bold move. But when you come from a family of eight, “you have to be quite independent”, she admits.
Watts trains daily at the Squash XL club in Avondale, hitting out inside New Zealand’s only all-glass court with a handful of other up-and-coming players. “It’s good to be with like-minded people,” she says.
All of her hit-out partners are male, and she plays in the local men’s interclub competition.
“It’s pretty challenging,” she says. “Playing the guys is super-fast and super-hard. But it’s really good for me to try to out-think them, because I know I can’t out-power them.
“Training with the boys is pretty full-on, all the time. But the benefits are worth it. When I play the girls, it seems a little easier, a little bit slower.”
It’s the kind of tough preparation that Watts wants, before she goes to the world junior championships in Kuala Lumpur in July. It will be her fourth – and final – shot at the junior world title.
For the past three years, Watts has been New Zealand’s junior champion. When she made her first world junior championships - for under-19 women - she was just 14, and declared that she wanted to win the world title by the time she was 18.
At last year’s world juniors tournament, she put too much pressure on herself to do well, after returning from a hamstring injury which had kept her off the court for much of the season.
“It was a nightmare, but I took some good from it. This time, I’m going to take it one game at a time,” she says. But, at the same time, she’s aiming to finish in the top eight.
Last year – her final year at Freyberg High School – was also the best in Watts’ young squash career.
She was chosen to play in an exhibition at the Youth Olympics in Argentina, and was part of the senior New Zealand team at the women’s world teams championship in China.
In the New Zealand team, she played with King, who’s currently ranked No. 5 in the world, Commonwealth Games doubles gold medallist Amanda Landers-Murphy (No. 41), and another up-and-comer Abbie Palmer (now No.104).
“It was unreal, playing with these women who I look up to, and playing against others like the Egyptians,” Watts says. It was the all-conquering Egyptian women who tipped New Zealand out at the quarterfinals stage, before going on to comfortably defend their world teams title. New Zealand finished eighth.
Watts also played her part in trying to get squash into the Olympics.
The Youth Olympics featured a squash showcase to take the sport one step closer to Olympic inclusion. But, earlier this year, squash missed out on making the 2024 Paris Games – ousted by break dancing (yes, you read that right).
Watts and fellow Kiwi Matthew Lucente played in the squash exhibition, which featured matches of four six-minute games. “It was actually harder than I thought,” Watts says. “Being an exhibition, you were running harder trying to make it look great.
“Hopefully it will make the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. That would be great - for every squash player.”
A year ago, Watts broke into the top 100 women squash players in the world, reaching No. 97. She’s now sitting at 112, but knows she needs to play in a lot more Professional Squash Association (PSA) tournaments and “get through as many rounds as I can” to climb the rankings ladder.
“I know it isn’t all going to happen straight away. There’s quite a process,” she says. “But there are so many possibilities for me.”
There's no doubt that Watts will take all the possibilities before her. She inherited the family's competitive gene. Former New Zealand women's No. 1 Shelley Kitchen, who's now Squash New Zealand's high-performance manager, says Watts is incredibly determined on court - almost at odds with the soft-spoken down-to-earth teen off it.
"She has her total game face on out on court," Kitchen says. "But she's also pretty humble. She's been a top junior for many years now, and her pathway has always been heading towards a professional career. Now she's going from strength to strength."
But from experience, Kitchen knows that Watts will have to be wary of injury or burn-out, with so many more tournament demands on professionals nowadays. Watts injured her other hamstring recently, but says she is getting much better at managing her fitness.
Watts manages to travel the world with the help of sponsors and her parents, Grant and Shelly. For years, her dad - a policeman - has been her travelling chaperone. But now she’s off on her own.
She’s living with “another squash family” in Henderson and training full-time until the world junior champs. “Then I’ll reassess whether to take a job or study, on top of my training,” she says. She's in no rush.
While she loves the challenge that comes with playing professional squash, Watts admits she also misses football. A talented striker, she played from the age of three through to Year 12 at high school. Then her squash commitments became too heavy, and the risk of injury too high. “I always just wanted to be like my brothers,” she says.
She has always looked up to King, and her personal coach Kashif Shuja - a junior champion in Pakistan who rose to No. 36 in the men’s world rankings, and now lives in Taupo. Shuja is now more of a mentor to Watts, who's now under the guidance of former New Zealand men’s champion Glen Wilson.
And then there’s her big brother Joseph, who essentially paved the way for his little sister’s success. He doesn’t have a lot of time for squash these days; he’s just won the East Coast Young Farmer of the Year.
But Kaitlyn would like to play another game against him, and try to beat her hero.