WSF Vice President Sarah Fitz-Gerald has paid tribute to the legendary Jonah Barrington on the day of his 80th birthday.
Fitz-Gerald, a five-time World Champion and two-time British Open champion, was mentored by ‘Mr Squash’ who played a key role in the Australian’s success on the professional circuit.
After their first meeting in 1996 after Fitz-Gerald’s first World Championship victory, Fitz-Gerald would often approach Barrington for advice when she was going through periods when she struggled with motivation and injury issues.
Barrington has gone down in the history books as one of the most important figures ever to step on a squash court, whose efforts in the 1960s and 70s brought about the birth of professionalism of the sport.
We caught up with Fitz-Gerald to discuss Barrington’s impact on the sport and her career.
Q: Sarah, Jonah Barrington is one of the most pioneering characters the sport has ever seen, how vast has his impact been on squash?
Sarah Fitz-Gerald: “He’s impacted the sport in more ways than anyone can imagine. His personality and his fitness took squash to a new level. As a kid I knew the name and had the pleasure of meeting him, and as soon as I did, I loved him.
“His personality is just so infectious, he’s amazing. He had a massive impact and people still remember that name today.”
Q: When Jonah first started playing full time, there was no professional circuit, no television, no World Championship and no obvious pathway forwards. Despite that, he forged on and essentially brought about the birth of professionalism in the sport – how much of what we know today about professional squash is down to Jonah?
SFG: “A huge amount. He was the pioneer who took squash to the next level, it went from am amateur sport to the next level. He was the main person that got this going and, as we know, he’s just an amazing motivator.
“He was able to motivate all the then amateur players to become professional and now we have the tour as it is today. Everything has to start somewhere and he is just so amazing and he got that going. There was a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication and look where our sport is today.”
Q: What can you remember of your first meeting with Jonah?
SFG: “I think I probably met him once or twice very briefly when I was on tour as a player. But one of my first recollections was when I was in Malaysia and I’d just won my first Worlds title. I had one of those matches where I played really well and everything just worked perfectly.
“Jonah came up to me after the match, and I think he used the word ‘clinical’. He basically intimated that he was so impressed with my match that day, and I just remember looking at him and my eyes went wide. It was Jonah Barrington and he thought that my match was great, he watched it and he was there, and I just loved it.
“It was after that I got more opportunities to meet him. I was on tour, I was doing okay and coming through the rankings and winning titles, but it led to an opportunity for me to go training with him at Millfield.”
Q: What kind of impact did the training and being around Jonah have on your career?
SFG: “At that time, I’d not quite gone flat, but I needed something and I think a lot of professional sports people, it doesn’t matter which sport, they need a new voice sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, my coach Mike Johnson was unbelievable and I loved him, but I just needed something else. So we made a decision that I would go and see Jonah.
“I spent the day with him and technically I was only meant to be there three hours or so. But he was there with me all day, talking and telling me stories. By the time I left, I was so motivated and he made such an impact on me that I knew I had another two years playing squash.
“Prior to going to him, I was just trying to get through the season, but after seeing Jonah I stuck around for another two years.”
Q: Looking back to that final World Championship title in Doha in 2002, your journey there was a nightmare, your flight was delayed, your baggage was lost and that must have had a big impact on your mindset going into the event – what kind of advice did Jonah give you when all of that was going on?
SFG: “What was funny was that I was standing at the airport thinking that I wasn’t going to make in time and everything was lost. I rang him and I said: ‘Jonah, maybe it’s meant to be and I’m just not meant to go’. He said: ‘You get on that plane and get your butt down there, you’re the World No.1, you’ve got to defend your title’.
“Just having him chirping away in my ear, I had to go. Of course, it ended up being very successful for me, it was a tough week, but I got through it, and if it hadn’t have been for people like Jonah, my coach Mike Johnson, and others, it would have been a really difficult week.
“That’s where I retired, so they got me through those final five matches.”
Q: What characteristics did Jonah possess that made him such a pioneer for the sport and such a force to be reckoned with?
SFG: “Determination. Someone who doesn’t give up, but also if you do something and you know that you can do something better, you’re going to keep going at it. That’s what he did, he could see that he needed to improve his fitness, his training and his skills and he worked on that.
“Determination is one of the obvious ones that comes to mind, but his effort and his work ethic was phenomenal, and he was able to instil that into anyone who has ever gone on court with him. I think as well it’s his pure passion. I had the pleasure of going onto court with him, and it was a combination of fun, hard work and you could also really feel the passion.”
Q: Lastly, have you got a message for Jonah at all?
SFG: “Happy birthday Jonah. It’s been an absolute honour that I’ve had the chance to spend time with you on and off court. I wish you the happiest of birthdays.”