By Martin Bronstein, © 2005 SquashTalk LLC, photos by Debra Tessier
Linda Elriani's Success Formula: Run 40 Minutes a Day and Shut Up.
“Sometime you have to get to the lowest point before you can have a turnaround and sometimes you have to realize how lucky you are.”
This was Linda Elriani’s response when I asked her about her amazing return to form in 2005 after a year of medium results where she struggled against – and sometimes lost to –players she should have beaten easily.
Linda is now 33, of an age when the normal squash career is coming to its close. And nobody would have thought any the worse of this ebullient and outspoken player had she hung up her rackets and concentrated on having French babies. (She is married to Laurent Elriani, the French squash player).
She has had a long distinguished career, joining WISPA in 1990 and winning her first tournament – the Swiss Open - in March 1993. She has chalked up 13 titles and has played for England dozens of times. During her 15 year career she has had to contend with the likes of Susan Devoy, Michelle Martin, Leleini Joyce, Cassie Jackman, Carole Owens and Sarah Fitz-Gerald. She mostly came out second best when meeting them on court, but that was more a lack of confidence than a lack of skill. On many occasions I saw her outplay higher ranked players for one or two games, only to fall off in the later games and lose.
Last September she was a member of the losing England team at the world team championships in Amsterdam, a loss that left her sobbing as her team-mates tried to console her. It was a point where many players would have considered retiring from the game, from the grind of airports and hotels, of playing early rounds in front of six people, of knowing that the old motivation has gone.
And in fact Linda did just that towards the end of 2004. But when Cassie Jackman was forced to retire because of chronic back problems, Linda looked at the situation from a different angle.
“When Cassie retired in December I was moaning about my own squash and how I wasn’t enjoying it and this, that and the other. Yet here was Cassie, one of my closest friends, having to retire because of her back. It made me a bit more reflective, made me think that here I was having the chance to play and not doing as well as I should be doing.
“Last year there was such a hectic schedule anyway and together with little niggling injuries, I never did the sort of training I would do normally. That makes a massive difference and when you get to my age it’s even more important. So in December I got a month of really good training done, and because of that I got my fitness back. It means when you go up front, you get back to the T quicker and so you are on the ball early. It has made the world of difference.
“It’s weird how it has all turned round. I had started to think about the future and whether I was enjoying it and what was the point and now I’m enjoying it more than ever.”
She played in three tournament in the first three months of this year, won two of them and lost to Vanessa Atkinson in the final in New York. But even though she didn't take the title in Grand Central Station, she had the satisfaction of beating the Grinham sisters on consecutive days.
RUNNING FOR SUCCESS
It sounds prosaic but Linda puts her newfound success down to running.
“I had not done any running in ages and I used to do a lot as well as the on-court stuff. So Laurent and I went running right on the promenade, on the seafront in Eastbourne; you couldn’t get nicer place to run. I decided to get a real good basic endurance back again and that’s what happened. It made me feel I’d got my lungs and my legs back again. Some people say that running makes you slow and if you do over an hour it would but we’d run 45 minutes most mornings and then go into the gym. If you do the running with the court work it doesn’t make you slow,” she claims.
“It also made me lose a bit of fat. After a week of running I got back in the gym, strengthening my whole body. I don’t do heavy weights, I prefer lighter weights with lots of repetitions. I am generally strong anyway but I felt my stability wasn’t as good as it should be so I did lots of squats.”
“I get run down quite quickly and it always goes to my throat. A few years ago I had my tonsils out because I had tonsillitis ten times in year. I still get sore throats so as soon as my glands come up I do nothing or a have very light day and wait for them to go down again.
“It’s too easy to get manic about training and the older I get the more I realize that with training it is quality, not quantity. It’s better to do a solid hour on the court doing really good stuff, than two hours just milling about. I count myself lucky because I have been relatively injury free.”
As a British professional, she has to play a lot of squash in order to make a decent salary. Apart from the WISPA tour, she plays English national league, French league, German Bundeslige and also some men’s league.
“I do the men’s leagues because it gets me matches and because Laurent plays in the same team. It’s perfect, we go to the matches together. He gets good matches at the top of the team and I come in at number five. And I think that has helped me too, playing guys that I’m never going to beat, but I manage to get one or two games off them and I really have to dig deep to do that. It makes you more resilient so when I play the women I say ‘Well this is hurting a bit but I can keep going.’ I don’t play all the leagues all the time but I think it is better to have a match than do boasts and drives because in a match you have to think tactically. If I’m doing a beautiful boast and drive who cares if I am not hitting the ball to the right place in a match?”
“That was really traumatic. I was very disappointed that England did not win. All the England girls get on really well together. Playing with Cassie and Fiona Geaves was great - they are my two best friends on the circuit. And the three of us were picked for the final and I couldn’t think of two better people to win the world title with. We knew the chances of us all playing together for England again were very thin, so we really wanted to win. I didn’t beat Natalie Grinham and Cassie was 5-5 in the fifth against Rachael. If she had won, Fiona was a banker at three and we would have won. I haven’t come off court and cried in a long time but in Amsterdam I came off court and just burst into tears. I was really very upset that I couldn’t do more. Natalie played well but I didn’t have the fitness that I have now.”
MADE TO COUNT
With so much experience behind her, Linda can outthink most of her opponents. When she plays men she doesn’t try to live with their pace. “I try to slow the ball down to bring them down to my level. You still have to get to the ball quicker to do it and I think my speed to the front of the court has improved over last year.”
This tactical superiority showed in New York where she used the height of the court better than any player – man or woman – in the tournament. Her lobs simply destroyed world number four Natalie Grinham and then did the same to Rachael Grinham, the current world number one. Elriani’s confidence because of her fitness was tangible and with only the odd blip, she played with complete focus, so much so that she almost forgot to have ‘differences of opinion’ with the referees.
“This year I have been relatively calm on court. I am trying not to argue with the referee and keeping my mouth shut.,” she says with her usual bluntness.
The real point about this turnaround is that with the retirement of Fitz-Gerald, Leleini Rorani, Cassie Jackman, Carol Owens, Fiona Geaves and Rebecca Macree over the last two years, Elriani becomes the senior player with a body of experience that is priceless. Disregard the fact that she is 33, she has shown that she still has the skill and fitness to hold her own in any company.
CHAMPIONSHIP – HER BEST WIN
“I felt that was a more important win than winning other tournaments, even though the people I beat weren’t that highly ranked. I’ve got through to the later rounds of world tournaments having beaten players above me but I never felt like I did when I won the nationals.
“I was actually thrilled - really very happy to win it. So many people said to me ‘it’s your year blah blah blah’, But you’ve still go out on the court and do it. Then pressure can get to you but I just keep thinking about the rally and the not the outcome, so that stops the pressure overcoming you. I play every point and every rally and not think beyond it,” she says.
“I’ll sit down after the Commonwealth Games next year and decide what I want to do. If I’m still playing as well next year I’ll carry on. But I’m not getting any younger and Laurent and I want to have children at some stage. If I do go on after the Commonwealth Games I can’t see myself going on for more than a couple of years.”
ELRIANI SPOKE TO MARTIN BRONSTEIN DURING THE 2005 TOC IN NEW YORK
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