By RJ Mitchell
Speaking shortly after her 80th birthday, British Open legend Heather McKay has taken a trip down memory lane to provide squash fans with a unique and insightful look back at her record 16-year reign at ‘The Wimbledon of Squash’ between 1962 and 1977.
The Australian legend has also provided a fascinating assessment of how recent results at the top of the women’s game at the World Championships could impact in Hull this week.
McKay has also revealed how she would approach the defence of her title if she was in the squash shoes filled by reigning champion Nouran Gohar ahead of her attempt to retain the title she won in 2019 at the Allam Sport Centre, where she will also begin her campaign to hold onto the oldest major squash championship on Tuesday.
McKay’s own unsurpassed longevity, which spanned two decades and garnered her the first women’s World Championship title in 1979, was built on a fierce affection for the sport she loved and played as an amateur for 14 of her 16 years as British champion.
“I can remember that first trip to England for my first British Championships clearly,” said McKay.
“I played Fran Marshall in the final of the Scottish and lost that match in five and that was the first tournament of the trip. Then I played her in the final of the North of England and I won that match 3-1 and then we met in the final of the British and I came out on top in straight games.
“It was a big challenge as in the UK they used a slightly different ball, which was a bit bouncier to what we had back home, and the British was played at the Lansdowne Club which had a swimming pool next to the show court, that made conditions very different to what I was used to in Australia, believe me.
“But I was very lucky on that trip as a lady called Janet Shardlow and her husband met me off the plane and they looked after me for the full eight weeks of that tour, and every time I came back to the UK I stayed with them and I called Janet my second mum, she was just so good to me.”
When it came to the fundamentals behind her dominance, McKay said: “It would have to be the love of the game. We were amateurs most of my time in squash and my husband was also involved in the sport and we played together and had a common interest.
“When I started, I had no idea I would stay around for that length of time I did, and many people used to ask me: ‘When are you going to retire?’ Well, I always answered: ‘When I don’t enjoy the game.’
“It was always a challenge and I challenged myself all the time to be the best I could be, the fittest I could be and to prepare myself for any major tournament coming up to the best of my ability, and my husband Brian certainly made sure I did that.
“I think one of my biggest assets was that I had power but also accuracy as well and I think that was a huge plus, but my movement around the court was also a strength of mine and I trained to make sure that was the case while also doing weights.
“I did do some interval training but not 400metres and I was one of the first squash women to do weight training certainly.”
McKay was also quick to cite the importance of the motivation provided by a group of players who forced her to dig deep, saying: “There were about three or four girls who I would class as my main rivals. Certainly, Anna Craven-Smith, Fran Marshall. Also, Jenny Irving, who was another Australian and although I only played her in one British final, she was the type of player who you never had the match won against until you had won the last point, she just never gave up. There was another Australian called Marion Jackman, who I also beat in the ’76 World Open final.
“People always used to say that: ‘You win 3-0 all the time.’ but I worked very hard to make sure that was the case, and they didn’t realise just how hard I worked in these three games, if I hadn’t been as fit as I was it would have been a different outcome.”
The burgeoning rivalry between defending British Open champion Nouran Gohar and World Champion and World No.1 Nour ElSherbini looks set to intensify at this week’s tournament and this battle for global supremacy has not escaped McKay.
McKay had an interesting take on how she would approach the defence of one of her 16 British titles and offered valuable advice to reigning champion Gohar, while also qualifying the importance of El Sherbini’s victory over the World No.2 in last month’s World Championship final.
McKay said: “Without a doubt, if you are the British Open champion there is pressure, but if you are the champion, it does give you a bit of confidence as well. I know that may be a contradiction, but if you are coming in as defending champion then you know you have been there and you have done it.
“So if you have prepared yourself well you have got to go in there with a certain amount of confidence as defending champion.
“The other side of that is that if you have had a win over your main rival the last time you met it has to help you, but I think you have to forget about that as every match is a new match and completely different as things change over three or four weeks.
“So, her [Gohar’s] best approach is to forget about what happened last time and concentrate on the match in hand.”
Focusing her mind on how she would approach a tilt at the title she made her own between 1962 and 1977, McKay said: “I took it one point at a time. I was always a bit nervous before I got on the court, but as soon as I got on there, I settled in pretty quickly, but I really did play every point at a time.
“In those days the scoring system was hand-in, hand out, so if I was serving, I was bit more aggressive and if I received, I was more conservative and played a more basic type of squash. In that respect I was conscious of adapting my game, but apart from that I took every point as it came.
“Today there seems to be more pressure on the players. In my time there was pressure, but having been an amateur for 14 of the 16 years I was British champion and not having to earn my living by winning all the time, that took a lot of pressure off.
McKay has given her thoughts on the Nouran Gohar (left) and Nour El Sherbini (right) rivalry.
“Every time they go on court today’s players have to win to continue on, and that must be tough for the lower-ranked players. But when I started, I didn’t have too many nerves at all. That said, by the time I finished I did feel the pressure.”