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Queen Of The Court

Last update - Thursday, February 8, 2007, 00:00 By Metro Éireann

Last year was a big one for squash player Madeline Perry. She finally broke into the world’s top ten and got to play in the World Championships in front of her home crowd in Belfast. EOGHAN MORRISSEY speaks to the Co Down sportswoman about injuries, travelling the world, and how she will follow up on last year’s successes  Squash may not be a contact sport, but Madeline Perry still managed to pick up an injury more common to rugby-playing while surfing in Cornwall a few years ago. “I fell off my board and someone else’s board came by the side of my face,” she recalls. “A wave smacked it and the board hit me on the side of my face. I was pretty lucky actually, it knocked me unconscious and I was underwater for a while.”  The incident left her with a broken jaw and two plates inserted to repair the damage. It's the most serious ailment she has suffered in her career, although she is no stranger to injury.

Played in a confined space, squash puts great pressure on the body, in particular on the knees and ankles. Perry has been unfortunate to miss out on three of the last four World Team Championships, one due to such an injury (a pulled abductor), while the other two times, different factors conspired against her; university finals ruled out one (Perry studied Geography in Queen’s University, Belfast); and last September in Canada, a dose of food poisoning from a dodgy sandwich bought in Edmonton laid her low, although she did manage to play in a weakened condition.

“I was sick the whole week. Even though I was on court I was pretty bad,” she says. “I’ve been a bit jinxed when it come to the World Team Championships.” But it’s just about the only jinx that struck Perry last year.

Lifting her eighth Irish Championship, she finally made the breakthrough into the top ten of squash’s world rankings, reaching number six by the end of the year. Immediately prior to the Irish Open she reached the quarter-finals of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, losing to eventual gold medalist Natalie Grinham of Australia. Following the Irish Open, she took time off for rehabilitation on her knee and returned in time to play at the Malaysian Open in July.

The year began with semifinal placings in the Kuala Lumpur Open and the Tournament of Champions in New York. Each time, Perry had vanquished a player seeded higher than herself, driving her own ranking up.

Prior to this she had been consistent but seemed to be permanently rooted just outside the top ten. So what made the difference?

“I don’t know, I guess it just all came together,” she says. “All the training, plus a few good results against some of the top players. It was mainly about getting consistency in my results.”

A full-time professional since 1998, Perry is based in Halifax, England, under the tutelage of coach Marcus Berrett, a former England international. She is supported by funding from the Irish Sports Council, the Northern Irish Sports Council, racquet sponsorship and prize money.

“Luckily I don’t have to work because it would be hard to fit in all the training with work as well,” she says.

Despite being Irish champion from an early age, Perry admits she had a slow start to her career on the international circuit. “The first couple of years were hard, I was just breaking through,” she explains. “I wasn’t really exposed to the high level of training the top squash players were doing because I was living in Northern Ireland. When I came to England, it took a couple of years to build up my strength.”

An all-round game of speed, reflexes, flexibility and strength, squash demands a unique training programme. As well as training for matches themselves, the sport requires a lot of work off the court.

“Weights and aerobic work in the gym, flexibility work, speed stuff, endurance, everything really,” is how Perry describes her daily regimen. Despite being based in England, Perry still gets to travel home to Northern Ireland. “I go home now more than I used to because I train at the Northern Irish Institute of Sport, they help me out with my physical training. It’s nice to be able to go home and train there,” she says.

Growing up in Banbridge, Co Down, Perry first picked up a racquet at the age of 11. She played many sports including hockey, football and cricket, but having tasted success in squash tournaments, she decided to devote herself to the game.

“It’s so good for fitness,” she explains. “I’ve tried so many other sports and I’ve never been so tired or stiff as after I play a squash match! Just the speed and excitement of it, you can get so much from it, it’s a great game.”

Despite her talents at other sports, she doesn’t get much of a chance to practise them nowadays. “I’m not actually allowed do that much in case I get injured but I can still do a bit of swimming, that’s the only one. I’ll have to leave the rest until after I finish playing squash!” she laughs.
One of the perks of playing squash on the professional circuit is the opportunity to travel. Squash is a global sport that is particularly popular in Asia, Australia and the Americas, meaning a lot of time is spent travelling abroad.

“I enjoy the lifestyle and I enjoy travelling. You don’t always get to see that much but it’s good to see another country and another culture, it’s a great experience,” she enthuses.

“Sometimes we get to travel a few days before the tournament starts so you get to see a bit then. Anywhere I’ve played where there have been major sites to see, I’ll go and see them. Now that I’ve been travelling a few years I’ll quite often go back to the same place I’ve been before, which is nice.”

While she enjoys visiting Australia and Latin America, Perry singles out Hong Kong as her favourite destination. “It’s a great place to play with a really good atmosphere, such a nice city,” she says. The fact that she won the Hong Kong Challenge Cup in 2005 may also be a factor in her affection for the city.

In November, Perry got a chance to play much closer to home when the Women’s World Open was held in Belfast. The tournament, which is the individual world championships, was heavily promoted with images of Perry adorning bus-stops and billboards around Belfast.

The finals stages were played in a glass-walled court in the King’s Hall, where Perry suffered a shock defeat in the quarter-finals to Natalie Grainger. But despite the loss, it was an enjoyable experience for Perry.

“It was great, it was so nice to play in front of my friends and family and show them what I can do, as many of them would never have got a chance to see me play before,” she says.

This year, the aim is to crack the top five world ranking. Although she admits she hasn’t had a great start to the season – she’s dropped to number eight in the latest rankings – there are some big tournaments coming up which give her a chance to gain some valuable ranking points.

Turning 30 this month, she already has one success under her belt this year, winning the Edinburgh Open at the end of January, while the European Team Championships in May offer another path to glory. Having finally cracked the top ten, it’s hard to bet against Madeline Perry going on to make the top five in the world squash rankings, as long as she can avoid those surfboards and dodgy sandwiches.

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