A Look Back At The U.S. Performance In The 2012 Women’s World Team Championships
by Rob Dinerman

Dateline November 20th ---- In the wake of the mediocre 13th place finish recorded by the American women’s squad at last week’s World Team Championships in Nimes, France, two pressing questions have to arise for any supporter of US squash. They are (1) why was by far the team’s best player, five-time U. S. Champion and former World Open and British Open finalist Natalie Grainger, not in the lineup that faced first-round main-draw opponent Australia in the most important American women’s team squash match in the two years since the last time this biennial tournament was held; and (2) how could it be that the four-person US team roster, consisting of the 35-year-old Grainger and high-school students Sabrina Sobhy, Olivia Fiechter and Maria Elena Ubina (all of whom are still age-eligible by comfortable margins for the World JUNIOR Championships), did not have a single player within the (considerable) 15-year age-span of 19-34, what should by all accounts be the prime squash-playing years, when players should be at their physical peak combined with enough accumulated playing experience to present the best-quality squash of their careers?

   After losing 3-0 to New Zealand and then edging out Japan to qualify out of their Pool E and into the 16-team main draw, the US decided to sit Grainger (who would have faced Rachael Grinham in what would have been an intriguing match-up at No. 1), thereby putting what amounted to a Junior team on the floor against the sixth-seeded Australians, who shut the 12th-seeded Americans out, then upset fourth seeds Hong Kong to reach the semifinals en route to an eventual fourth-place finish. Thus consigned to the Consolation draw for teams competing for places Nos. 9-16, the US then also lost 2-1 to a lower-seeded South African squad, which doomed their chance of finishing in the top 12, before concluding the event with a pair of meaningless wins over weak team entries from Mexico and the Czech Republic.

  To the extent that the goal in not having Grainger play in the round-of-16 match was to have her rested and ready for the Consolation event (one of several rationales given at the time, all of them well articulated and none of them convincing), a case can be made that it succeeded in the sense that she went undefeated in her remaining trio of matches. But should the US team strategy as it enters international team championships be to point for an optimal performance in the Consolation draw? Even if Grainger had lost to Grinham, her long-time rival and contemporary, it would have pushed the other two players a spot down and improved their prospects against their respective Australian opponents. Whoever actually made this call, and whatever the motivations behind it, the view from here is that in a main-draw match in a tournament of this magnitude, you take your absolute best shot, which means going with your best players (led by your best individual player), even if it means possibly paying a price in the Consolations if that is where you wind up. Indeed, even the Australians were surprised by Grainger’s absence, and from their comments, including from their coach Sara Fitz-Gerald, the nonpareil late-1990’s and early-2000’s multiple World Open and British Open champion, it appeared that they were understandably a bit offended by it as well.

   But an even larger issue than the foregoing is, WHERE are all the 25-year-olds, the players who SHOULD be representing the US in senior-level international competition, who, after years of having their games honed first in the Juniors and then in the Intercollegiates, are physically and mentally ready to make all of those US Squash Junior Programs and all that individual coaching and all those challenge matches and team dual-meets pay off? Why when the most recent US Men’s team is completely comprised of players of that vintage and background (namely Julian Illingworth, Chris Gordon, Todd Harrity and Gilly Lane, all in their 20’s and all with 10 years or more of playing experience in their ledgers) were there no such representatives on the women’s squad last week?

   At some point, it is no longer good enough to send an under-age team to Championships like these and have the ready-made rationalization that you’re developing a team for the future; at some point, the “future” needs to finally arrive. The British team --- consisting of Alison Waters, Laura Massaro, Jenny Duncalf and Sarah Kippax ---- that came within an eyelash of winning a thrilling final against Egypt this past Saturday (with Omneya Abdel Kawy running off the last five points to defeat Duncalf 11-8 in the fifth game of the deciding match) consisted of the same four players who 11 years earlier had composed the British Junior squad that out-played Malaysia in the World Junior Teams final. That is a formula well worth emulating: developing a stable of players who play really well in the Junior championships during their teens and then are ready to play really well in the Open championships during their 20’s. Maybe the Sobhy/Fiechter/Ubina trio, main-stayed by Sobhy’s highly-accomplished older sister Amanda, will possess the staying power and perseverance to do exactly that. By all accounts, they acquitted themselves admirably last week in the grueling cauldron of this elite-level competition.

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