Squash: Bailey aims high after a tough spell in shadows

Britain's No 1 squash player has overcome a mystery illness to face the world's best this week. Mike Rowbottom reports

Tania Bailey peers out of her kitchen window in the direction of her old house. She has driven past it a couple of times since moving last year. It is a place forever associated in her mind with inaction, frustration and despair as she struggled to free herself from a debilitating virus that prevented her from doing what she loves - playing squash - for the best, or rather worst, part of two years.

Bailey's new abode, a neat and tidy semi in her home town of Stamford, Lincolnshire, attests to her successful return this year from that slough of despond. The wall unit in her front room displays a healthy collection of silverware, including a winner's medal from the World Team Championships in September and the trophy she inherited for winning her first national title in February, a victory which marked her return to action proper after a period that had tested her mental and physical resolve.

This week, Britain's champion will seek to congest that wall unit still further as she takes part in the Women's World Open Championship in Belfast, starting tomorrow with a first-round match against Malaysia's Sharon Wee. Bailey is ranked seventh in the world, a place behind fellow Briton Vicky Botwright, one of her team-mates in September's victory. But by the time this World Open concludes on Sunday in the glass-walled court within the auditorium of Ulster Hall she expects to have improved that ranking. At 27, Bailey is eager to make up for the time she has lost.

It might have been the Olympics, rather than the World Open, in Bailey's sights had her parents, Carol and Les, not succumbed to the squash bug which infected a generation back in the 1980s and early '90s. Their daughter was a promising athlete at 12, but after being encouraged to try the game which so enthralled her mum and dad, it wasn't long before she came to the attention of a professional coach. Within six years of taking up the game she was world junior champion. A year later, in 1998, she turned professional, and by 2000 she had reached a ranking of No 5 in the world. Everything was going her way.

At 21, she began to discover that life is rarely that simple. A car crash she suffered the day after flying back from a tournament in the United States left her with a knee injury that was eventually diagnosed as a chipped bone and required surgery to remove the fragments.

"I was doing so well at the time," she recalls. "When you are young you don't think anything can go wrong. I loved the years between 18 and 21. I had already won the world junior title and I felt I was moving towards being the world No 1. I was pushing myself every day, training, playing, travelling. Probably doing too much. The injury kept me out of action for six months, and by the time I got back into training my ranking had fallen to No 17. I began to work extra, extra hard to get back."

The work paid off as she rose back to No 4 in the rankings. But her status was about to take another, even more worrying nosedive which began, she now believes, when she decided to play a tournament in New York while suffering from a bad cold. "At the time I thought I couldn't afford to miss the tournament because I needed to keep up my ranking," she says. "The money isn't huge in squash to start with. If you are world champion, including all the spin-offs, you can make maybe £100,000 a year and it drops away pretty steeply from there. Outside the top eight you can't make a living. I just thought, 'Maybe I'll be OK'. But it was the wrong decision. I reached the semi-finals, but then I had to drop out because I couldn't breathe on the court.

"It is only this summer that I have been able to get back to training as hard as I want to, and I think about how lucky I am all the time, because what I went through was so awful. For six months I virtually didn't leave the house. I would go to bed at night with a headache and wish that when I woke up the next day I would feel better. But I didn't. I tried everything to get the illness out of my body. I spoke to all sorts of people and tried everything - acupuncture, relaxation therapy. I had heart scans and brain scans. I must have seen about 15 doctors and three or four specialists. I kept being told to rest, and that was all I was doing anyway! I didn't know if it was a mental thing or a physical thing."

During her time out she spoke regularly with Peter Marshall, Britain's former world No 2, whose top-class career was ended by what was eventually diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome. "I felt so sorry for Peter, because he was suffering much more than me," Bailey says. "I was eventually able to get about, and I didn't look ill, but I just couldn't train. It was hard for people to understand."

Eventually Bailey was diagnosed with the Epstein Barr virus - the ailment which temporarily halted the careers of the athletes Roger Black and Jonathan Edwards in their tracks. "It was with me for about two years. Last year I was still up and down, and there were days when I felt ill again. I kept thinking I was better and then discovering I wasn't. We even moved house to try and get myself out of that feeling. And we changed our car - everything!"

Bailey reckons her boyfriend Neil, a forklift truck operator, deserved a medal of his own for supporting her throughout her ordeal. "He was frustrated for me because there was nothing he could do," she says. "I'm normally quite a calm person, but there were times when I wanted to throw things." Her energy is being put to better use these days, however, as her successes continue to raise the profile of a sport that has languished outside the limelight for years. The women's World Open will not be seen on terrestrial British television - although Sky and local new outlets will be featuring it.

Bailey and Botwright, however, will be present at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards next month, partly for their role in earning England a team bronze at this year's Commonwealth Games, an event in the squash calendar that did make the Beeb.

And although the defending world champion, Malaysia's 23-year-old Nicol David, appears a strong favourite to retain her title after putting together a 22-match unbeaten run, Bailey is not ruling out any possibilities as she prepares for Belfast.

"I'm as fit now as I have ever been, and I know that if I stay well I can definitely, definitely beat any of the top players," she maintains.

Bailey's confidence was lifted by her victory over Canada's world No 2, Vanessa Atkinson, in the World Team Championships, and she will prepare for this week's event in a calmer way than ever before. "What happened to me was a reality check," she says, reflectively. "I'm different now. Whatever I get, I appreciate it more."

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