King on a quest to rule the squash world
Joelle King has a clear mission in 2019: “I want to be the best in the world,” she says.
Talking to King during a short visit home to Cambridge, you feel a strong sense of belief and purpose. The Commonwealth Games squash double gold medallist has risen to number four in the world in the latest rankings, but she’s focused on getting to the top.
After a long career in squash, the 30-year-old King is adamant she’s not done yet. “I want to be world number one. I want to win the world champs,” she says.
Fresh off her first victory at a Platinum Professional Squash Association (PSA) tournament, the Hong Kong Open, in November, King has reached the point in her career where her long term goals are suddenly a reality.
“For years I’ve always known I had the potential to win grand slams, but to actually do it is a bit of relief. It gives you so much confidence going forward,” she says.
“Early this year at the Windy City Open [in Chicago], I had match ball and I didn’t convert it. To actually get it done is so cool. I almost feel like ‘C’mon I want more!’ It’s given me the confidence to keep going to be the best in the world.”
King’s main focus in the coming year will be accumulating as many points as possible from every PSA tournament to move up the rankings. She reckons she could potentially be the world number one in six months.
“They say in squash between the ages of 28 and 35 is a woman’s peak. So here’s hoping. Physically I feel great,” she says.
It’s been a huge year for King. At the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April (the third Games of her career), King was the most successful Kiwi athlete, in terms of individual medal count. Gold in the women’s singles, gold in the women’s doubles with Amanda Landers-Murphy and bronze in the mixed doubles with Paul Coll.
It’s an achievement that took a while to sink in.
“The Commonwealth Games is such a huge stage for us ‘squashies’. I had the goals going there, but to do it was awesome,” says King.
She played every day of the 10 days of competition on the Gold Coast and then flew straight to two more tournaments before returning home to New Zealand.
She was exhausted arriving back in Cambridge, and it took her a couple of months to bounce back after a flat period.
To win in Hong Kong – beating new world number one, Egyptian Raneem El Welily in a thrilling final – to end a superb year has been hugely significant for King, and she’s buoyed by the acknowledgement back at home.
“After Hong Kong it was pretty special to know lots of people were cheering me on from home. I’ve had a few people come up to me in the street saying ‘We don’t play squash but congratulations’,” she says.
King’s success to date is not an accident.
“It’s funny when people ask you how many hours a day do you train? I always say there’s lots of training, but on top of that I do physio, pilates, needling etc. It’s a fulltime gig,” she says.
King knows she needs to look after her body. She is a business, she says, which needs care and attention to grow. Her Achilles tendon rupture in 2014 brought even more perspective to taking care of the details that could make her a better athlete.
She also knows that being based in the English city of Bristol - alongside other professional players and her coach, Hadrian Stiff - is where she needs to be, to be at her best.
“There are 14 guys that train there, so I can have two different hitting partners every day. I just don’t have this in New Zealand, and it’s particularly hard over the Kiwi summer to find someone to have a hit with,” she says.
King has been working with Stiff since early last year, and he’s helped give her the belief that she can be the world’s number one.
He’s brought a fresh perspective at a pivotal point in King’s squash career.
“He just looks at the game a bit differently, and it’s a vision I’ve never had before. The way he teaches movement is really not the traditional squash way. It’s made me feel younger - like I’m in my early 20s again,” she says.
Their connection came about after another player on the tour - current men’s world number 5, Marwan El Shorbagy - asked King about her coaching setup while shooting the breeze after a tournament.
At the time King was self-coached and, she admits, a bit lost. “I was kind of at the point of, am I going to keep doing this or not?”
Egyptian El Shorbagy suggested his coach, Stiff - who also coaches the five of the world’s top seven men - could help her.
It was Stiff who emailed King, outlining areas of her game where he thought she could improve and how he could help. It was the email she'd been waiting for, and she has never looked back.
King headed back to Bristol last weekend. It’s nice. she says, to be based in a country where you’re recognised as a professional rather than a social sport participant.
She is now preparing for the professional squash season - which will again take her round the globe to PSA Tour tournaments and professional leagues in Europe right through to June next year.
She’s able to do this globetrotting through the support she receives from High Performance Sport NZ, Squash NZ and other sponsors.
King also has a setup in New York with her other coach, Rodney Eyles. She plays her first major tournament of the year there next month - the JP Morgan Tournament of Champions. A squash court will be set up in Grand Central station, putting the athletes on show.
She then builds up to the world championships in Chicago in late February, and from there she’ll play tournaments in Egypt, Amsterdam, Switzerland, England, Dubai and back to Hong Kong.
She will finally return to New Zealand for the nationals in June.
She has a good feeling about 2019. “I’ve become so confident with what I’ve done, that when I turn up [to a tournament] I feel ‘Yeah, I should win’.”