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Top pro squash player on match prep, the fallacy of burnout — and why a bikini calendar

January 4, 2010 – 4:00 AM
Granger bests Alison Waters in the finals of the Burning River Classic in Cleveland, Feb. 2009

Grainger bests Alison Waters in the finals of the Burning River Classic in Cleveland, Feb. 2009

By Sarah Odell

What happens when you cross a genetic pre-disposition with an environment crafted for squash excellence? Answer: Natalie Grainger, one of the top women’s squash players in the world (she’s been # 1) and president of WISPA (the women’s professional governing body).

Natalie has great genes — her mom, Jean, was a former No. 1 player and British National Champion — and she grew up in a squash environment. Her mom and dad, a South African Civil Engineer, built the Parkview Squash Centre in South Africa, which Natalie refers to “as a second home.” Throw in that she picked up a squash racquet at 2 ½ years old and it’s clear why Natalie has some serious victories – and investment – in professional squash.

She recently took time from traveling and playing to talk about learning to be a competitor, burnout and — bikinis.

FGN: What have been the hardest aspects of the game to master?

NG: When I was younger and just starting on the tour, I struggled to understand that there was no such thing as a perfect game of squash. I needed to just get on with things and compete to the best of my ability.  I became a really tough competitor, and could win even when I wasn’t at my best – some of my most memorable wins are not championship victories, but battles I had to overcome with players that tested me to my limit.

FGN: How do you balance your role as President of WISPA with competition (against players you represent)?

NG: I have learned to separate my work for WISPA from my play because my role  includes dealing with promoters and handling player’s needs as a board member.  Being able to shut my laptop, close my eyes, visualize my game, understand that I cannot affect anything else or see to anything else is liberating. It allows me to prepare and get ready for my matches, which for me is one of the most enjoyable parts of my life!

FGN: Many athletes, especially in college are burnt out by the time they make it to school. What keeps you playing?

NG: I’m going to turn this around and ask your readers, “Why do you consider yourself burnt out?” I don’t understand that so-called issue. Sport is fun and social and teaches you to find a competitive edge that can translate into any career (which by the way will be a whole lot more stressful than chasing down a squash ball!) I would say that the term “burnt out” is an over-exaggeration and surely cannot apply to school kids arriving at college. How are they old or experienced enough, how can they be burnt out from a sport that they don’t play full time, how can they know the stress of paying rent by whether or not they perform?  Squash has been my chosen career, but I play because it is the sport that has been the most enjoyable for me.

FGN: How do you mentally prepare for matches?

NG: On game day I find time a few hours before my match to lie down, close my eyes and semi-nap/visualize my upcoming match. It allows me to play some points, focus completely and utterly on my upcoming performance, my strategy for that particular opponent, and also work through any anxiety I might feel by understanding in my mental darkness that I am really good and that I am ready to be tested. I always set an alarm clock, usually giving myself about 45 mins for this down time. When I get that flutter of nerves in my tummy thinking about the game, I know that I am ready. Often walking through the door of the court for my match I get another flutter of nerves, this always makes me smile and laugh inside as it is the competition of a squash match that is getting my juices flowing – we have to laugh at the way the human psyche works don’t you think?

FGN: WISPA has decided to do a swimsuit calendar for 2010. Is that right?

NG: When WISPA decided to do the first calendar last year, we went with squash kit and a second shot in black tie dress. Many people often don’t recognize the girls — having admired their ability on the court, retrieving, lunging, striking, mentally digging in, concentrating and often showing a side that is competitive and often ruthless to an opponent — when they emerge from the changing rooms to emerge in high heels, jewelry and trendy cocktail dresses, with their hair done, make up on and ready to socialize with sponsors, patrons, supporters and fans!

With the Cayman Open coming in April, we had the ideal opportunity to shoot a “hot” calendar on their beautiful beaches, so I contacted Patricia Lyons, a friend, squash fan and fabulous professional photographer. All of us loved our time behind the camera! It was a little nerve racking to begin with, but by the end of the shoot, the inner goddess certainly came out!! Huge fun!

FGN: Why do a “hot” calendar?

NG: WISPA decided to do a hot calendar for the fun element and to showcase our international athletes in a way that showed their appeal as awesome women that are strong and diverse — and the bikini calendar caught people’s attention! We have been able to get pieces in many different magazines and websites due to the fact that the calendar is tasteful and sexy and we believe that it promotes our tremendous athletes in a cool and energized way.

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