By RJ Mitchell
Rob Owen has outlined an ambitious triple-pronged approach for Sarah-Jane Perry to fulfil her squash destiny.
England’s top ranked woman sits at a career-high ranking of World No.5 ahead of the provisionally scheduled date for the PSA World Tour’s resumption on September 16 in Manchester.
Having already made major final appearances at the British Open in 2017 and the Commonwealth Games in 2018, Perry’s progress was disrupted in 2019 by the impact of elbow surgery, but the England No.1 finished last season in impressive form over the final three pre-COVID-19 suspension tournaments.
The English star made a final in Cincinnati at the Bahl & Gaynor Cup, a semi-final in Chicago at the Windy City Open and another semi-final at the CIB Black Ball Open.
Owen has also been hugely impressed by Perry’s dedication to her suspension training regimen, and with Perry currently in squash boot camp at Owen’s West Warwickshire club, one of five performance centres in England, she has been joined, observing government guidelines, by Jasmine Hutton in a high-quality pre-season training hub.
Owen, who has masterminded Perry’s ascension to her career-high status, has pin-pointed a major title, a top four ranking and a bid to strike gold in her home city of Birmingham at the 2022 Commonwealth Games as Perry’s main goals over the next two years.
“On her day, SJ is as good as any player and she has beaten both Raneem [El Welily] and Nour [El Sherbini] and there are not many players who can say that.
“At World No.5, she is at her highest ranking and although we know it will be tough to break that top 4, just like it will be for Paul Coll in the men’s game, we are going to keep knocking on the door until something gives.
“But the target remains to win a World or British Open in the next three years or so. The other long-term target for SJ is the 2022 Commonwealth Games, which given it is in Birmingham, is massive for her, and we very much hope to have her in the top two seeds for that.
“In terms of the major titles, it is going to be very tough for her to find the consistency to make No.1, but if we can break the top four, that will make the draw that bit kinder when she gets to the business end of a major tournament, so SJ will be that much fresher.
“She has already made a British Open final and a Commonwealth Games final and has been in the mix at the top end for a while now. The key going forward is that we avoid picking up the niggling injuries that rob her of momentum and the time we need to get the right work done.
Perry in action against Massaro in the 2017 British Open final
“But SJ is such a passionate and committed advocate of squash, she is on the Commonwealth Games Committee as the squash rep and she does so much to promote our sport and is just a very bright girl.
“So, I really believe that SJ’s best moments are ahead of her.”
But as Owen attempts to bring out the absolute best in his charge, he admits there is a balance to be struck.
“Right now, our focus is on getting her stronger and fitter. As I said, SJ had a lot of niggles last season and obviously also had to get through an elbow operation, and that meant that a lot of the time when we were working together we had to taper the training sessions accordingly.
“As a coach, it is absolutely vital that while you are trying to improve your players you are aware of the balance you need to find between doing what Is required to make the improvements needed and not over loading to an extent that an injury is brought on.
“But I have no doubt that SJ has developed as a player and also has a far better understanding of her game and what she is trying to achieve, and now she very rarely loses to a player ranked beneath her.”
Turning his attention to the women’s game in general, Owen had no hesitation that the women’s has never been so good.
“I have no doubt in saying that the top eight in the women’s game is the strongest I have seen. There is no one player dominating and that was also the case before Raneem retired, although she did have the top ranking,” said Owen.
“In the last few major tournaments, each was won by someone different and at the Black Ball Open, Hania [El Hammamy] came right through to win from I think the No.10 ranking. So, there is a superb unpredictability and some of the matches we are being treated to in the women’s game are absolute thrillers.
“In the past there was a predictability about the women’s game that is not there right now, and if you look at the last three major finals in Cairo, Chicago and New York before the suspension, then in two of them we had fantastic five game matches and we had three different winners in Camille [Serme], Nour and Hania. So, although Raneem’s retirement is a shame, I think we are in for some fantastic squash when we get going again.”
When it comes to who will emerge at the summit of the rankings when battle recommences, Owen admits that Egypt may still supply the world’s leading player.
“Of course Nour has the advantage in terms of experience and in terms of the major tournaments. She has been the most consistent, but Nouran [Gohar] has already won a British and gone World No.1 and she has so much power that it is going to be very difficult to knock her off top spot.
Women's World No.1 Nouran Gohar
“Then you look at the Black Ball and no one can ignore what Hania did in coming through the draw and beating four players who were ranked above her. Amanda Sobhy was starting to play some pretty decent squash before the suspension again and beat SJ in the final at Cincinnati.
“SJ made the semi-final in both Platinum events in Cairo and Chicago, so when you look at all of that, then it is fair to say the women’s game is in its best shape for years and there is so much to be excited about there.”
Returning his attention to his West Warwickshire club, it is clear Owen likes what he sees.
“I have only managed a few sessions with SJ and part of the reason behind that is that we are being careful not to go flat out straight away when there has been such a gap between things being in full swing and starting back up again.
“But as you would expect, SJ has taken good care of herself, put a lot of work in on her own and we have a good base to build from and there is a plus in that the suspension has allowed some of the niggles that were affecting her to clear up.
“Historically speaking, SJ takes a few tournaments to get her momentum going, but obviously we now have a date to work towards with the first tournament being, provisionally, Manchester on September 16, and that is a help in terms of providing focus.
“I have made sure that I have spoken to all my players once a week, and this week I have Charlie Lee and Jas Hutton through to West Warwickshire for a camp, while at the end of August, depending on the COVID-19 situation, I am hoping that Paul Coll and Nele Gilis will be over.
“But I’d like to say that England Squash have done a pretty good job in managing a very difficult situation and one that is unprecedented in sport, and that also goes for the PSA in terms of getting a provisional calendar out.”