Bowls: Monkhouse breaks new ground in battle of the sexes

After eight years of struggle, a Grimsby PE teacher has become the first woman to take on the world Mike Rowbottom reports

The players' gallery at the World Indoor Bowls Championships was fuller than usual for Robert Newman's first-round match on Thursday evening. The object of scrutiny was his opponent - for the first time in its 27-year history, the competition had a woman qualifier.

And judging by the performance Amy Monkhouse produced as she took Newman to the brink of defeat before losing 2-1 in the tie-break, it is a sight the game's male players had better get used to.

It was only a couple of months ago that Carol Ashby repeated her 2003 achievement of becoming the first woman to qualify for a World Bowls Tour ranking event and made a second appearance at the International Open at Sheffield.

The 38-year-old Sussex bowler made further history by winning her first-round match before being beaten by Robert Weale. Ashby, twice the women's world indoor champion, had appeared live on air before her second-round match and rebuked BBC TV's Breakfast sports presenter Chris Hollins for offering encouragement to her first-round opponent, Mark McMahon of Australia, earlier in the week. She also made the presenter agree to wear a dress on the show if she progressed further.

Thankfully for Hollins, Weale prevailed. But further male embarrassment seems assured as the likes of Monkhouse and Ashby start to make their talents tell in an event which is one of the most even possible as far as the sexes are concerned. At 26, Monkhouse, an amiable and composed PE teacher from Grimsby, has established herself as one of the leading women in the world game.

Next month she will travel to Melbourne to begin preparations for the Commonwealth Games, where she will seek to add to the bronze medal she won in Manchester four years ago. But her fixture this week at the Potters Holidays complex in Norfolk was one for which she had been preparing ever since she was a 14-year-old. On the eve of competing with her mother, Christine, in the final of the England Triples Championships, she announced that her ambition was to play on the portable rink in the World Bowls Tour's Open World Championship.

She earned that right after eight years of trying in September by winning five consecutive matches, all against men, in one of the event's qualifying tournaments. Although she was not the first woman to take part - Israel's Ruthy Gilor appeared in last year's event as a late replacement - she was the first to earn her place.

Naturally her mother, with whom she won the national mother-and-daughter title last year, was watching her big moment. But such was the intensity of the occasion that Monkhouse did not once look up to her in the gallery above one end of the rink.

"Although I felt more nervous before the game than I did once it started, I didn't want to look at my Mum, which is quite astonishing because usually I will flick my eyes up at her from time to time," Monkhouse said. "But this was something new for me. It's been a long time that I've wanted to do this, and you've got to make the most of it. I was so near. I had a chance to kill the game off in the second end of the tie-break, but then that was it. Gone. I enjoyed the game, though. And it's not often I say that when I lose, because winning is a big thing for me."

In a hushed hall where the only sounds were the rumble of air conditioning and the occasional tapping of sticks as latecomers among the predominantly elderly spectators made their way in from the communal restaurant, Monkhouse, her chin thrusting forward determinedly, looked a likely winner on more than one occasion. A crashing shot with her final delivery of the first set turned a 5-6 deficit into a 7-6 result and was greeted with bowls's version of uproar - warm applause.

Newman, an old friend from the last Commonwealth Games training camp, responded with a rueful smile, but raised his game to take the match to a tie-break by winning the second set 11-2.

At 1-0 down in the tie-break, he responded again to rescue the next end with his last delivery and Monkhouse could not earn what would have been the decisive advantage with her final bowl. Newman then dominated the final end before being rewarded by a bright smile and a peck on the cheek from his opponent - something of a rarity, one fancies.

Meanwhile Monkhouse and her mother were contemplating the three-and-a-half hour drive back to Grimsby, where Amy, a PE teacher at Tollbar Business and Enterprise College, was due to take an A-level sports theory class yesterday morning. The topic pupils are engaged on this term is the Nature and Development of the Elite Performer. They will be benefiting from some excellent first-hand input.

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