|Donna Urquhart, Australian professional squash player|
Donna Urquhart was born in December 1986 in Yamba, a small town on the east coast of Australia popular for its good surfing. This tall and powerful squash player made her break through into the top twenty in 2010 after a year of strong results. In fact, at the Cayman Islands Open early that year she nearly took out world number two Jenny Duncalf, after losing a close fifth game. Since then Urquhart has shown she can hang with the world's very best players. Recently she beat both Madeline Perry and Kasey Brown, two players ranked higher than her in the current world rankings. Clearly Urquhart has a lot of upside potential.
Over the last year her draws have been tough, given her WSA ranking she often ends up playing the top seed in tournaments. Hence, she has played long time world number one, Nicol David, more than anyone else in her career to date. They have met five times on court in the last twelve months. In the British Open which just started, Donna is finally in the other half of the draw from David and, should she win today, will be playing Jenny Duncalf in the second round. Donna won't be put off by the difference in world ranking and you can expect her to give Duncalf a good go in that match.
I got the opportunity to sit down with Donna in New York recently. She was here on a layover in between the Texas Open and the British Open and was staying with friends in Brooklyn. Here is a transcript of our conversation.
BE: Donna, thank you for taking time out of your training schedule to sit down and talk. Congratulations on all your squash achievements to date.
DU: Thanks. No worries.
BE: We understand that outside of squash, surfing is something you are passionate about in your life?
DU: Yes, I live in Brisbane right now but the town I grew up in has one of the best surf spots in all of Australia and so as a teenager I grew to love it. It is a right handed point break, so is a little difficult for me given that I am a goofy foot.
BE: Goofy foot? That means you put your right foot forward on the board right, the opposite of most people. I assume you play squash left-handed then, do you think it helps you against right-handed opponents?
DU: Yeah, being left-handed makes a bit of a difference sometimes as I think the other players find me hard to read. So it probably does give me some kind of advantage on the squash court, unlike me trying to surf a right handed wave!
BE: Ha. Were you ever tempted to have a go at another sport, professionally, other than squash?
DU: Well, I only started surfing when I was a teenager. The first sports I really got into were actually field hockey and squash, of course. When I was a kid my mom was a field hockey coach and squash player and she encouraged me with these all along. The tipping point started when I went for the New South Wales (state) hockey trials as an eleven year old and just missed out on making the team. About the same time I won my first NSW state squash title. I still loved playing hockey for years to come but squash became my biggest passion.
BE: Well lucky for us, I'd say. How did you even grow up playing squash in a small beach town and with all the other sporting distractions Australia has to offer?
DU: My cousin Cameron Pilley's (PSA professional and Australian number one squash player) family owned and ran the local squash centre in Yamba which was conveniently situated next door!! So I was lucky that as a kid I could go and play whenever I wanted. My mum was a handy player and I started myself when I was about 6 years old.
BE: Nice. Well it definitely shows in your squash game. Who were your sporting idols growing up?
DU: I had posters of Australian squash players Sarah Fitz-Gerald and Michelle Martin on my walls growing up and they were both world champions. I wanted to be just like them. More recently, Rachael Grinham has been an inspiration to me. Although I do get to play her and train with her so it is a little different. She is a great friend and I am lucky to have someone like her for a training partner.
BE: Where do you train in Australia?
DU: I live in Brisbane now because that is where the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) is based. The AIS itself is actually based in Canberra, the Australian capital city, but there is a satellite program for squash based in Brisbane. It is fortunate for me because home (Yamba) is only a few hours drive down the coast.
BE: Who are your coaches there?
DU: I get coached by Byron Davis and Anthony Ricketts right now. They are very knowledgeable and great to work with. It is nice to be able to get on court with them when I am doing stints of training in Australia but I spend a lot of time travelling around the tournaments without a coach with me. However, I am lucky that Anthony will be in London next week for the British Open with myself and the other Aussie players. He is great to have around; he is extremely positive and really picks me up when I am being too hard on myself.
BE: Are you often too hard on yourself? We understand that you have had a personal tragedy which nearly put you off the sport?
DU: Yes, my oldest brother passed away at the age of twenty and we were very close, he was my best friend. I was almost eighteen at the time and it was very hard to deal with his loss. It never put me off squash, but I didn't play much for a full year while he was sick. He always told me how proud he was of my squash achievements and remembering that is a source of inspiration for me these days.
BE: Very sorry for your loss, Donna. I am sure everyone in your life is thankful that you found the strength to go on after a life changing experience like that at such a young age.
DU: Yes, I am completely dedicated to my squash career right now and don't take anything for granted. I work hard every day, but my brother's memory is with me, always.
BE: I am sure you train hard all the time to play squash at the highest levels. Are you getting some good matches in whilst in New York?
DU: Yes, there are loads of good players in and around the area to play with and I have been enjoying getting games with different people. I have been spending some time in the city at the Harvard Club where Richard Chin takes the time to get on court with me and set me up with matches. I have also spent a few days in Greenwich training with friends around there.
BE: That's great. Do you realize that you’ve played fourteen WSA tournaments in the last twelve months, more than any other woman in the top twenty? You must enjoy being on the tour full time. Do you travel alone, or with a coach/physio?
DU: Actually, I did not know that I have played the most matches. Wow. I guess it happens when you are on the road for as long as I am. Australia is a long way away so I don't travel back and forth like a lot of other players do. On this current trip, I will be away from home for three months. I generally travel alone but would love to afford the luxury of having a coach and physio with me if I could! And yes I do enjoy it, I think I am lucky to be doing something I love.
BE: You must miss Australia when you are away?
DU: I do. So much. I miss my friends and family, as well as the ocean.
BE: I heard that the growth of the game has slowed in Australia. Is this true? But I also read that a large new squash complex was just built in Darwin in anticipation of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, to be hosted by Australia, so it is not all bad news.
DU: It is quite sad, but yeah, there are less squash clubs now than there used to be. I hope to play for Australia again in the 2018 Commonwealth Games; it would be an amazing feeling to play in front of a home crowd at the games. I don't think my playing career will be over by then, as long as my body is still holding up to it!
BE: I am sure it will. If anything, you are improving. A few weekends ago in Texas you lost narrowly (12-10 in the fifth) to Mexico's number one player and world no.11, Samantha Teran. That would have been your first victory against her correct?
DU: Yes. I was up in that match 2-1 and should have closed it out but had a bad call go against me on a crucial point late in the fourth. Another bad call on match point basically cost me the match. Samantha played well and it was a great match, a real battle, but it was very frustrating to lose like that. It would have been a great win for me to pull off against a higher ranked player, and I could have done with the valuable world tour points as I slipped a bit in the WSA rankings this month. I do think I am getting better every day though and that my best squash is still ahead of me.
BE: Good to hear. In the Tournament of Champions this year you played Pakistani, Maria Toor Pakay, in the quarterfinals. I saw that match. You used good counter punches to absorb her pace. Was that your game plan going in?
DU: Yeah. She hits the ball well and is very physical on the T. My basic game plan was to keep it tight and straight and let her get bored and try to force a winning shot from a tough position. It worked well and I beat her 3-0 in the end. That was a good win I feel, because honestly I was a little nervous going in with all the hype about her recently.
BE: Well it did not show on court. Do you do anything to deal with the mental stresses of playing such a demanding sport?
DU: I have been working with our AIS sports psychologist recently. I feel it really helps put things in perspective and helps you to stay calm and give the very best you can every time you step onto the court. The mental side should be an important part of anyone's preparation I feel.
BE: Speaking of mental strength, did you know that long time world number one, Nicol David, has lost to only four current WSA players during her entire career? They are Jenny Duncalf, Laura Massaro, Kasey Brown, and Madeline Perry. Your biggest scalps are two of those, Kasey Brown and Madeline Perry, so you can definitely hang with the world's best. You play a qualifier in the British Open first round and should face world number two, Jenny Duncalf, in the second round. It seems to me, based on your playing record, that you definitely have the ability to win this match. How do you see your chances?
DU: I definitely think I have a chance, I mean, if I did not think that then I would not be where I am now right. I am learning to believe more in my own ability and I feel that if I put it together on the day then I can match it with just about anybody. That said, I'll just get out there and do my best and see what happens. I need to get through the first round match before that, and there are some good qualifiers in the draw, so I'll just focus on that and take it one step at a time.
BE: Thank you Donna for the insights into your life as a professional sportswoman. We will be following your career and will be shouting for you to do well this week at the British Open, at the US Open in October and especially when you play again in New York in future.
DU: Thanks very much.
The last big pro tournament for the season is the British Open in London that just started. To follow the tournament go to the offical British Open website.
Donna played and won her first round match in London today. Tomorrow afternoon she is playing her second round match against number two seed, and top English hope for the title, Jenny Duncalf. If Donna wins it will be the biggest victory of her career to date. You can watch the match live online at the link on the right of this site called 'Watch Squash Live Online'. The next big WSA tournament where you can see Donna play is the US Open at the start of next season in Philly. To keep up to date on US Open news leading up to the event go to US Open.