Campion draws strength from agony of defeat

World squash champion begins challenge for the British Open title in Birmingham determined to erase memory of last year's bitter disappointment

The trap may be old and not particularly well hidden, but the edge is worn smooth by the number of sportsmen and women who fall into it. Winner of five major tournaments including the World Open, ranked world No 1 for the first time, Cassie Campion approached last year's British Squash Open as the nailed-on favourite.

The trap may be old and not particularly well hidden, but the edge is worn smooth by the number of sportsmen and women who fall into it. Winner of five major tournaments including the World Open, ranked world No 1 for the first time, Cassie Campion approached last year's British Squash Open as the nailed-on favourite.

It was understandable. Earlier in the year her coach, David Pearson, and husband, fellow professional David Campion, had finally persuaded the brilliant but inconsistent Englishwoman of the need to temper her attacking instincts with a steely patience.

The effect was apparent in the way she chewed up the then world No 1 Michelle Martin in the final of the World Open, which this year will be played from 13-17 November in Edinburgh. For an hour she pinned the tough Australian to the back of the court in a series of punishing rallies, taking the match in three straight games.

A first British Open crown seemed an inevitable progression, and Campion's progress to the final, where she played the New Zealander Leilani Joyce, was secure enough. But having taken the first game, the proximity of her goal appeared to overwhelm her. She became anxious, tensed up, looked to win points too quickly, and by the time she began to play her own game again it was too late.

The 27-year-old from Norfolk took defeat hard. "It was the last match of the last tournament of the year, and ever since I won the Worlds people had been telling me I was going to win my first British Open. And it finally got to me. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. It wasn't so much getting beaten as the part I'd played in it. Or more accurately didn't play in it. I was angry, but it was with myself."

Squash, as the great Jonah Barrington never tired of pointing out, is essentially a primitive game. At the very top mental strength is almost as important as physical fitness, and since then Campion has had several sessions with the sports psychologist Kirsten Barnes, who works with all England's women internationals.

"I've learned a few techniques now which should ensure that sort of situation will not affect me again," Campion said. "An experience like that is never something you want to happen, but if it does you must learn from it. I think I'm stronger as a result." Tangible evidence can be found in the fact Campion has beaten Joyce three times since that day in Aberdeen, twice in finals.

Not that becoming world champion has made a massive difference in terms of personal recognition. A game played in around 120 countries, and by more than a million people in the United Kingdom alone, continues to struggle to establish itself in the country's national sporting consciousness. "Within the game itself obviously it's an achievement that's acknowledged. Otherwise, well, I got introduced to the crowd at half-time at a Norwich City game and there's been the occasional dinner, but not much else changed. It is frustrating. Not personally, but because British squash players are doing so well at the moment. We have five or six of the top 10 in both the men's and women's game, but even last year, which was terrible for British sport, that just didn't seem to be recognised."

There is a degree to which squash has only itself to blame. Campion has been asked many times in the last three weeks why she was not winning a gold medal in Sydney, and failure to achieve Olympic recognition has not helped the drive for wider exposure.

There are signs however that the sport is beginning to understand how to sell itself. TV coverage has been secured for this year's British Open, which starts at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham today. It is a popular venue, and new fully transparent show courts will present the game at its considerable best.

Should Campion and her male counterpart, the Scot Peter Nicol, justify their seeding, it will be the first time Britons have held both titles since 1939. Once again she is the strong favourite, though with her half of the draw including the Australians Sarah Fitz-Gerald (another former world No 1) and the third seed Carol Owens, as well as Tania Bailey, the young Briton who has already worked her way up to world No 8, no-one is taking anything for granted.

Bailey however, a regular training partner, is in no doubt Campion's status is justified. "She's very strong, hits the ball so hard, and she's one of the quickest players too. When you throw in her experience and natural anticipation, it makes her a very formidable player right now."

That extra experience may be the key, as Campion acknowledges. "People give you advice on how to win, but the fact is that really - well, really you just grow up." She smiles. "It helps."

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