Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Queen of squash court now grande dame

Our squash star from the 1980s laments decline of game in New Zealand, writes Wynne Gray.

Susan Devoy's exercise regime involves walking, running and some occasional recreational squash but nothing to tempt her into a World Masters event in New Zealand next year.

The highly-decorated Devoy quit that competitive life almost 25 years ago with four world titles and eight British Open crowns emphasising her domination in the squash world.

She escaped with minimal damage from her professional career, ran a few marathons but ruptured an Achilles tendon a few years ago and is content to tick over her exercise now rather than go full-bore.

She's busy enough with a variety of charity work and is three years into her five-year term as Race Relations Commissioner.

Devoy was born into a world of squash and travelled to tournaments at weekends with her parents and older brothers. When they socialised afterwards, Devoy would nip into an empty court and practise.

"The great thing for me about squash was it was something we did as a family and I took that for granted then," she said.

The sport suited her sharp hand-eye co-ordination and while she wasn't the most flamboyant player, technically she cleared out from the rest.

In the 1970s and 1980s, squash was huge in New Zealand, with massive competition for places in provincial tournaments.

"It was always over-subscribed but you don't get that these days, unfortunately," she said.

Going to school in Rotorua was an interlude before the only daughter and youngest of seven children turned professional at 17.

Devoy's father earmarked her for a university education but she diverted her competitive nature on to the world squash circuit.

"You've got to understand back then when I was 17 and left school, there weren't many professional sportswomen around, full-stop, let alone in a minority sport like squash," Devoy recalled. "I never grew up thinking there was any gender inequality between the sexes so that's how I learned to rock and roll. I think you are born with that mongrel."

Squash dominated half her life and Devoy is disappointed for the current crop of players, including three of her four sons, that the sport is not on the roster for the Rio Olympics.

"It doesn't seem fair, as it's a sport which ticks all the boxes. A sport which has Egyptians, Indonesians, Malaysians and is truly global now, much more than when I played, doesn't get an opportunity," she said.

Devoy is saddened squash numbers have declined in New Zealand but understands it is difficult for a sport which is not on the Olympic roster and has other restricted pathways.

When setting off on her squash career, she worked as a builder's labourer before she got a grant from the New Zealand Sports Foundation to boost her parents' assistance. It was not a luxury ride and Devoy learned to make do.

That's the hard thing really, if you don't love going out there and doing the same thing every day, the grind, then you are probably not going to make it.
Dame Susan Devoy

"Miraculously" she got by and in the United Kingdom stayed with coach Bryce Taylor, who tried to tame her temperament, and his partner, Marie, who spotted her first at one of the British Opens.

"We [Taylor and Devoy] had a few run-ins. I was a bit of an obnoxious hot-head and I think I needed putting in my place a few times. Not many coach-athlete relationships last the entirety of your career."

Taylor was a former New Zealand rep player who would train on court with Devoy and that was more valuable than having a coach stand above and yell instructions.

"He was a very good technical coach and I think that is the difference these days between trainers and coaches.

"We spent a whole season changing my forehand and doing things like that and technically he was very good, and tactically.

"I had an extraordinary amount of patience to do whatever it took really and I think that's why, if I look back now and think, I loved training as much as competing. That's the hard thing really, if you don't love going out there and doing the same thing every day, the grind, then you are probably not going to make it."

Training was never an issue but her attitude could be.

In one tournament, a feisty Devoy was mouthing off on court and Taylor threatened to "rip her ... tongue out" if she didn't calm down.

That instruction was absorbed as Devoy conceded her vocal volleys at competitors and officials were inhibiting her progress.

Her weapons were her supreme fitness, tight technique and a mental edge on her rivals.

Hard work gave Devoy a confidence rather than arrogance to believe that, barring illness, injury or an opponent playing extraordinarily well, she was going to win. That mindset consumed and obsessed her, training was a priority and everything else took a back seat.

Belief was an invaluable advantage in every match.

"I stared down the barrel of defeat a few times but I suppose you are born with that x-factor knowing what to do at those split second decisions and how to really hang in there."

Devoy became world champion at 21 as her career blossomed into one where defeats were sporadic.

When they came, like a quarter-final loss at the 1991 British Open, Devoy learned to be humble and gracious in front of a critical UK media before she would let her emotions flow a little more when she spoke to the New Zealand press.

At 29, Devoy quit the sport because she had no more targets to cross off.

"Part of my success was I wanted to work really hard. I'd just had enough, the time was right. I have no regrets."

There were huge events in New Zealand such as the televised series in Aotea Square in 1990 with crowds of up to 1500. Squash was booming. Not so much now.

"It disappoints me, those were the glory days. It is financial."

Squash was strong globally yet struggling in New Zealand, although her squash centre in Tauranga has a full membership and is hosting next year's junior world champs.

Devoy was made a dame soon after her fourth son was born and was later appointed chief executive of Sport Bay of Plenty, is patron of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and a life trustee of the Halberg Disability Sports Foundation.

Then she applied for and was appointed Race Relations Commissioner.

"It has been an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience. Most days are a pleasure and it has changed me so much. I am not Susan Devoy, the squash player. That may sound a little weird.

"I can't measure if I am making a difference and I find that a bit of a challenge because in squash, the results are there.

"I am much more reflective. I used to shoot from the hip and go out with all guns blazing."

That was necessary to fire her competitive instincts, while being Race Relations Commissioner was not a contest or a choice between winning and losing. Her upbringing fired her sense of social justice in the way she scrapped for conditions on the world squash circuit.

She's spent a lot of time in sport since she retired and loved watching her sons compete. That was far more nerve-wracking than playing, as she and husband John Oakley tried to be supportive parents without being overbearing.

Coaching was an intriguing mix of personalities where some pupils were driven and had "mongrel and desire", while others were more laidback or struggled for self-belief.

"I've just realised how hard it is to be a champion - you have to be able to tick all the boxes," she said.

The future? Who knows, Devoy asks as she wonders who would have thought once she retired from squash in 1992, she would become Race Relations Commissioner.

Squash had opened many doors and given her amazing opportunities in New Zealand and she hoped her current work would as well.

- NZ Herald

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