So Farewell Carol Owens
A Personal Tribute by Martin Bronstein, Written Specially for SquashTalk
“I was tempted to retire on court with the trophy in my arms. I have been on the road for a very long time and they do say it is best to retire at the top. But, on consideration, I reckoned I owed some people in New Zealand a say in the matter.”
These were Carol Owen's words to Colin Mcquillan after she won the world open title in Hong Kong in December.
Her decision to retire, officially announced this week, came as no surprise to those who know Owens. For the last two years she has been making noises about enjoying the travelling less and less. She was also getting more and more attached to her adopted country, New Zealand.
Her move to Auckland was as much a political statement as it was a social choice. It was Owens' very public way of telling the world how disillusioned she was with the way she had been treated by the Australian squash bosses. In essence this Melbourne native had been born at the wrong time, having two other Australians, Michelle Martin and Sarah Fitz-Gerald, as contemporaries on the professional squash circuit. Those two golden champions had grabbed the limelight and Owens felt she had been neglected; while in the shadows her shoulder had grown an enormous chip.
In short, Owens was a wonderful squash player whose performance was marred by confidence as brittle as thin ice. She allowed the real and imagined slights perpetrated by Squash Australia to affect her performance on court.
Here was a player who had a unique game, one of superb lobs, inch perfect volley drops and tight, tight drives. She had the fitness, she understood tactics and she moved as though on ice. But all of this would often dissolve into a mess of errors coupled with a disastrous drop in determination if something went wrong. If she started a match well, she would win; if her opponent went off at a gallop you could almost see Owen's confidence drain away.
In one Egyptian final, she played the first game at 80 percent, lost it and then lost the next two games in minutes. When I reported on her less than championship performance she sent me a furious email saying that she had played well for one game. She would not admit that for a top three player, it was a bad performance. I was then the hated journalist until we met at breakfast at another tournament and we started chatting. By the end of the hour-long conversation, she realised that I didn’t think she was a bad player, just that she had put in a lacklustre performance. From then on we were friends.
It was from that first conversation that I realised how much of a chip she had on her shoulder, feeling that she had always had to play second fiddle to Sarah Fitz-Gerald who had taken over from Michelle Martin as world champion and top Aussie. There was also a valid complaint that the only time she heard from Squash Autralia was a month or two before world team championships when they would contact her for assurance that she would be available to play for Australia.
It was a chance remark at a British Open, late at night, that she dropped the bombshell to me. She would not play for Australia in the upcoming world championships. By this time she had moved her base to New Zealand and was becoming closer to the Kiwi squash establishment. Her outburst that night in the press room gave me a major scoop and set off all sorts of explosions that reverberated across the Pacific.
"I pay Paul
Wright [her coach] good money to make me the best player I can be and
I get absolutely nothing from Squash Australia. We barely get paid for
playing for the national team. And yet every two years they assume that
I shall be available for the team. I never hear from the Australian women's
coach and when she was appointed we were not consulted," she said
in a fairly bitter outburst.
The story was on Squashtalk in a matter of minutes and the repercussions echoed around the world for months. Squash Australia denied the accusations, but the fact was they had lost three valuable players and went on to lose to England in the final of the team championships in Sheffield.
It was obvious that Owens would soon take on New Zealand citizenship and she was duly given her passport in a special ceremony. She would also received substantial financial support from her new country. While the chip on her shoulder shrunk somewhat, Owens could still disintegrate on court for the flimsiest of reasons. But then she also produced sizzling performances.
Her finest moment came in Edinburgh in 2000 in the world open. She had beaten Tania Bailey in the quarters to face Sarah Fitz-Gerald in the semis. She dominated Sarah for the first two games and then suddenly fell apart to lose the next two games and then trail in the fifth. It was a spectacular collapse and just as we were preparing to report another Owens debacle, she recovered focus and fought all the way back to win that final game. 9-6. This gave her a final berth against Leilani Rorani. Owens' apalling start to the match was to finally produce one of the most thrilling finals I have ever seen. After losing the first two games and on the edge of defeat 3-7 in the third, Owens relaxed, realised that she could not possible play any worse and had nothing to lose by playing her game. In an historic comeback she hauled her way back into the match by winning the third 10-8 and then proceeded to dominate Rorani in the final two game to win her first ever world title. [At the press conference afterwards she said that she was determined to win because Martin Bronstein had said that she lacked the confidence to win. She smiled as she said it.]
She showed the world just how good she was, and had demonstrated that she could now dominate the game given that Fitz-Gerald was on the way out.
But Owens was then approaching 30, had been playing the circuit for 10 years and disillusionment was beginning to show. She had been in the top ten from July 1993; She held the number two spot from November 2000 until she took over the top spot in March 2003.
Despite being the world number one and world champion, a position that, among other things, would put her in a position to enlarge her bank account (she once told me that she coached to help pay her mortgage), Owens, at the age of 32, has decided to retire. A quick look at last year's itinerary, and you can quickly understand why she wants to stop: Kuala Lumpur and New York in February. Texas in March, Egypt in June, Britain and New York in October, Qatar and Hong Kong in December. And in between the gaps, another trip to and from New Zealand.
I can understand that the prospect of not having to get up every day and train, not having to watch what you eat, not having to pack your bags and again to go through the cattle-car experience which airlines now offer the paying customer, and not worrying about losing to some fresh-faced player ten years her junior, as being very attractive. But squash will sorely miss her presence; she brought a unique style and athleticism to the game. In full flow she made everything look so effortless and no other player could produce such perfect cross-court lobs - and use them so well.
WISPA will struggle to fill the gap so soon after the
retirement of Fitz-Gerald and we in the press room will miss her spiky,
joke-filled repartee. And I won't have anybody to rile.
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