An Analysis Of The U. S. Women’s Team’s 14th-Place Finish In The 2008 World Team Championships   By Rob Dinerman

December 10
– The 2008 World Team Championships, which concluded this past weekend in Cairo, Egypt, were a damning memo on the current state of women’s squash in United States. The 11th-seeded squad placed 14th out of the 19 entered countries, well below its 10th-place standing in Amsterdam in ’04 or its 11th-place finish in Edmonton two years ago, even though neither of those mid-2000’s rosters had anyone in the WISPA top 15, much less a top-tier star like Natalie Grainger, the current WISPA No. 3 and a prominent member of two 1990’s South African teams that placed in the top four. Grainger’s imposing presence represents virtually a guaranteed win at No. 1 but her supporting cast did not represent the best that the United States presently has to offer. If the recent results in Egypt proved nothing else, they proved that unless the top American players are committed enough to the cause of representing their country (as is true of virtually every other squash-playing country in the world and was not true of the U. S. effort just now), then U. S. Squash, which presently utilizes a significant amount of its budget towards funding USA teams in this type of international competition, needs to either re-think whether it makes sense to enter such teams at all going forward or become resigned to the type of dreary results that were produced in Cairo.

   Those mid-2000’s American entries that did relatively well in Holland and Canada were paced by Latasha Khan, winner of seven U. S. Nationals during that time before being displaced by Grainger the past two years after the latter received her American citizenship in early 2007. Khan, 35, is still playing at or near the top of her game, having just a few weeks ago defeated WISPA No. 18 Samantha Teran and taken 2004 World Open champion Vanessa Atkinson to five games in the Carol Weymuller event in Brooklyn. Khan’s teammates in those tournaments included three-time U. S. Nationals finalist (in ’02, ’04 and ’05) Meredeth Quick, two-time Harvard captain and eight-time U. S. Juniors champ Louisa Hall and ’98 Intercollegiate Individuals winner Ivy Pochoda, all of whom were quite young at the time with excellent collegiate records and solid resumes in national and international play, all of whom should be in their playing primes right now, and none of whom (nor were either Khan, whose presence alone might have resulted in an upgrade to or near the No. 10 team position, or ’04 and ’05 Intercollegiate Individuals champion Michelle Quibell) were willing to play in Cairo this autumn.

   This scenario is in marked contrast to prior team try-outs for the prestigious World Team Championships, which used to be “for blood” as recently as the outset of this decade, more so in fact for the women (where there were fierce controversies and even a lawsuits threatened regarding the composition of the team) than for the men. As messy as those conflicts occasionally became, and as badly as some of the contestants (or their parents) sometimes acted, at least that group evinced a powerful desire to compete on behalf of the United States. It makes little sense to “build experience for the future” in players who by the time the future “arrives” have already moved on to other academic or business pursuits, and claims of not being as fit as would be desirable, not having the time to devote to a trip of this several-weeks dimension, not being thrilled with some of the decisions that the national squash organization has made in the past, etc., eventually ring hollow against the reality of a U. S. team that, even with Grainger’s formidable firepower, really wasn’t capable of finishing  much higher than it did.

   The foregoing is not in any way an attempt to diminish Grainger’s actual teammates in Egypt, namely former Princeton captain Claire Rein-Weston (winner of the Team Trials held in New York in October to determine which three players would accompany Grainger), the precocious teenage multi-titled Junior champion Olivia Blatchford and former Brown stand-out Hope Prockop --- each of them played admirably and valiantly, often in the face of superior opposition. Rein-Weston, described by one teammate as “having the heart of a lion,” displayed that trait throughout the tournament; Blatchford showed lengthy glimpses of the talent and potential that have so many college coaches already jockeying to convince her to attend their respective schools; and Prockop played exceptionally well in her win over her Italian opponent that helped assure the U. S. a top-15 finish.

   There were two matches that had a real possibility of landing in the U. S. column before getting away, namely the 2-1 losses to Japan (which cost the team a chance for a top-12 placement) and in the 13th-place playoff with Germany. On each occasion Grainger predictably prevailed against her over-matched opponents (Chinatsu Matsui and Kathrin Rohrmueller respectively) at No. 1, only to have the team come up short in the Nos. 2 and 3 slots. In the first match, Blatchford looked to be in good position to defeat Kozue Onizawa after she evened matters by taking the second game, but she lapsed a few times in the close-out 11-5 fourth game, while Rein-Weston also stood at one game apiece against Misaki Kobayashi, who however then took the third game and managed to convert her small mid-game lead in bringing home a very competitive 11-7 fourth. Then in the concluding duel with Germany, Prockop failed to approach the level she had achieved one day earlier against Italy, and Rein-Weston, after losing a pair of agonizing 11-9 opening games, eked out the third in a tiebreaker against an opponent, Pamela Hathway, who seemed on the verge of fading at that stage before surprisingly regaining her early-match form in the 11-5 clinching fourth game.

   The next holding of this biennial event in 2010 may well represent the last time that Grainger, currently 31 years old, can realistically be expected to still be playing at the top echelon in World Team Championship play. The opportunity to represent one’s country in a competitive forum of this magnitude should far out-weigh any sense of entitlement or any lingering resentment caused by prior squabbles with the national governing organization. Perhaps the biggest change that needs to occur to foster a better result in the near or foreseeable future will have to take place not so much on court but rather in the hearts and minds of the top players on the American squash scene, who ideally would regard such an experience as a privilege to be embraced rather than as a burden to be gamely endured or, when possible, avoided.


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