Laura Massaro: Britain's anonymous squash world champion recognised at last
Never heard of her? Here she tells Rod Gilmour all about her new life in the spotlight
Sunday 11 May 2014
She may have appeared on Blue Peter, left a postman star-struck and taken longer than usual to leave her local David Lloyd fitness centre in the last two months, but Laura Massaro is still perhaps Britain's most unrecognisable world champion.
When she won the women's world title in March she joined Nick Matthew, the men's world No 2, in holding squash's showpiece title. Two current British world champions in the same sport? Unheard of. Remarkable even. However, English squash is revelling in the success and the pair could garner yet more silverware at the British Open, which starts tomorrow at the KC Stadium in Hull.
Twelve months ago Massaro's British Open title barely registered outside the 1,000 who witnessed her dismantling of Nicol David, the Malaysian world No 1 who could achieve 100 months in top spot next March if she can hold off Massaro's continued assault on the summit.
Her world-title win in Malaysia was a different matter. She returned to a full media programme, which included having to lip-sync Take That's "Never Forget" on Blue Peter.
"It was a mental week in what has been a surprising and crazy year," she says. "The worlds went well but I always knew the potential banana skin was my quarter-final."
The world No 2 was pitted against Low Wee Wern, a local playing in front of a frenzied 3,000 crowd. The Lancastrian saved four match balls to set up a clash against Raneem El Weleily, a talented Egyptian, and a player "good enough to beat me". But the pressure had already been lifted and she was soon one step away from successive world finals.
"When Nicol lost in the semi-final, I wasn't sure how to feel. On paper I was seeded to become world champion, but Nour El Sherbini had taken out all the seeds. It was a bizarre feeling not knowing how it was going to go."
It turned out well for Massaro, though nerves returned – she has admitted she was almost sick beforehand – as the England No 1 held off the young Egyptian in a five-game thriller.
Unbeknown to Massaro, the Malaysian federation had produced posters in anticipation of David's eighth world-title success. Massaro's highly respected coach, David Pearson, who steered GB's Matthew to his third world title last November, described the posters as "arrogance of the highest order".
Massaro is more understanding. "All the players were aware that the organisers had put on the event for Nicol to win in her home city," says the 30-year-old. "It made sense and it's nothing to do with Nicol."
But Pearson is very protective of Massaro and equally as passionate in dismissing her critics. "At the end of the day no one has really appreciated the effort that Laura has put into her game, so this is what drives her on," he says.
Massaro laughs at Pearson's passion. "What he means is that if someone had £100 even 10 years ago, they wouldn't have put it on me to become British or world champion," she counters. "The same could be said for Nick too.
"I want to finish my career by saying I squeezed everything out of it. I am aware that people far more talented than me have achieved a little bit less, or equal to."
Despite her global achievements, Massaro's feats are best recognised in her beloved Chorley, Lancashire. "I get random tweets that people were standing behind me in a coffee queue, rather than people coming up to me," she admits. "Or when I was out shopping and the postman asked my husband if this really was where 'Laura Massaro, the squash player, lives?'"
Her local fitness centre, she says, was the biggest surprise. "I have been training there for 10 years and have a court named after me, but I genuinely didn't think anyone knew who I was. For two weeks I couldn't leave reception without being stopped. It is great I can represent my local area like that."
Massaro's status has also been instrumental in bringing parity in prize money with the men in the British Nationals and increasing the women's prize-money for the British Open. Angered by the decision to drop the women's event from last year's World Championship in Manchester, she, along with fellow England players Jenny Duncalf and Alison Waters, wrote to the then England Squash chief executive asking for an explanation.
"It was a bad mistake [not to hold both]," she says. "We said what we needed to say, but they have responded brilliantly and increased prize money for Hull which means we are up from last year [to £60,000, with the men's at £90,000]."
Meanwhile, next week's event, promoted by Hull City chairman Assem Allam, will be held indoors after the glass court – positioned on the KC Stadium penalty area last year – proved problematic due to the weather. Massaro now only has to stop her main rivals raining on her parade.
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