Index to Squashtalk match-by-match accounts of the British Open competition 2001
FITZ-GERALD FIRED UP FOR BRITISH OPEN
June 4, 2001
Alan Thatcher at the British Open, Birmingham. photso: Fritz Borchert, Debra Tessier (all contents © 2001 SquashTalk)
SARAH FITZ-GERALD, the pint-sized powerhouse of women's squash, is in awesome form. She has not lost a match since November, and in that time she has won nine consecutive tournaments, dropping only a single game in the process.
This petite, strikingly attractive and typically friendly Australian turns into a ruthless winning machine the moment she steps on court. She is simply destroying all the other girls on the world tour, including the two players currently ranked above her, Leilani Joyce of New Zealand and fellow Aussie Carol Owens.
She crushed them both in straight games in less than half an hour in Egypt recently and repeated that scoreline when she beat Owens to win the Seattle Open a fortnight ago.
That solitary dropped game was in San Francisco a week earlier against England's former world champion Cassie Campion, who is herself making a comeback to action after an operation to her spine kept her off court for seven months.
Fitz-Gerald's return to such a high level of quality and consistency, in one of the most physically brutal of all sports, is a phenomenal achievement after two years of knee injury problems.
Sarah, known as Fitz to the other girls, is now 31, a grand dame in comparison to the child prodigies currently ruling the vastly more lucrative world of women's tennis, although when it comes to mixing glamour with serious hard work then the squash girls would win hands down.
Fitz-Gerald is playing as well, if not better, than at any time of a glittering career in which she has won three World Open titles. But she has yet to lift the British Open. She aims to put that right in Birmingham this week.
Last year the closest she came to the court on finals day was as part of the Sky TV commentary team.
However, she will not place any unwanted pressure on herself by making any predictions. She's been down that route before, to her cost, and simply says, like the seasoned professional she is:
"I will be taking each match as it comes. "A lot of other people have talked about this being my big chance to win the British, but I'm just looking forward to it. It's always a big tournament on the world calendar but I don't want to put any extra pressure on myself."
The form guide points to a Fitz-Gerald victory, although the New Zealand Maori Joyce will be going flat out to record a hat-trick of victories, having beaten Campion in Aberdeen in 1999 and England's Sue Wright last year at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena, where this year's action begins on Tuesday.
Ironically, Fitz-Gerald, making a tentative return to competiton after her first knee operation, was in Joyce's corner during the 1999 event, coaxing and cajoling a nervous newcomer to the game's upper echelons to her first major title. Now they are rivals again for the game's big prizes and are seeded to meet in the semi-finals.
The two of them are also the best athletes in the women's game, although Owens is on her day currently the most creative stroke-maker. She is due to face England captain Linda Charman-Smith, from Sussex, in the other semi-final. Owens beat Fitz-Gerald in straight games in last year's British Open, only to be surprisingly knocked out herself by the bustling Wright, who has since announced her retirement from the world tour and will instead be sharing the compering duties at the NIA.
Owens also removed Fitz-Gerald from the semi-finals of the World Open in Edinburgh in November. The event was an important watershed for the women's game, with so many gripping matches of outstanding quality that came across superbly on television, culminating in Owens scrambling back from the brink of a quick defeat at 7-0 down in the third game to outwit the devastated Joyce 3-2 in a classic final.
Fitz-Gerald gained her revenge on Owens the next time they met, beating her 3-1 in the final of the Universal Classic in London in December, which proved to be the start of an astonishing run of success.
She has grown in strength and confidence with every victory, and says: "I'm fully fit and hardly feel the knee at all. I am not conscious of it at all, either playing or in training. Occasionally I hurt the scar tissue, but that's nothing to worry about.
"I have had to adapt my approach to training, and I am looking much more for quality work than quantity these days."
Sarah also enthusiastically endorses a range of natural vitamin and mineral supplements she has been taking to boost her immune system and keep her free from illness and injury.
Three years ago Fitz-Gerald thought that she would be retiring in 2001, but nothing could be further from her mind right now. She added: "I'm definitely going on for a while yet. If I am playing as well as I am now then there would be no point in stopping.
"When I first spoke about retiring I hadn't bargained for the knee injury keeping me out for the best part of two years. I had hoped to do all the things I wanted to do in the game, and thought that it would be a good time to retire.
But I love the sport and that's the main thing. "Besides, these are exciting times for squash. I am looking forward to going home to Melbourne in October for the World Open, then playing in the Commonwealth Games again next summer in Manchester.
"Then there's the new World Grand Prix Series taking off, and I want to be a part of it all. If the body and brain are holding up then I will stay and play."
Fitz-Gerald has enjoyed a deliberately low-key build-up to the Eye Group British Open, working out with her regular partners at her UK base, the Caversham club near Reading.
She added: "I've been training there and having a few hits with the men players, and generally taking it easy with nothing to distract me." Having helped Edgbaston Priory to the SRA National League title this year, Sarah will feel equally at home in Birmingham this week.
Her dedication to the Priory's cause landed her with a £500 fine (later removed on appeal) from WISPA, the women's players' association of which she is president, after she had interrupted a tournament to play for the Birmingham side in a key fixture.
Some top players are inclined to take it easy in league matches, but not Fitz-Gerald. She dealt with all of her opponents in a typically ruthless and professional manner, and she will be hoping those attributes will be enough to gain that missing piece of silverware next Sunday.