Interview by RJ Mitchell
– - –
Sarah-Jane Perry predicts that defending World Champion Raneem El Welily is the favourite for the PSA Women's World Championships presented by the Walter Family starting in Chicago this weekend.
But the World No.6, who has recovered from elbow surgery to take her place in the draw against Hong Kong's Vanessa Chu on Saturday evening, believes that the women's game is at its strongest in terms of depth in her eight years on tour and reckons that up to six players could entertain hopes of raising squash's most iconic trophy.
Perry is also in no doubt that New Zealand's Joelle King, whom she lost an unforgettable five set Commonwealth Games final to last year, is the main threat to the Middle Eastern dominance that has seen the last three Worlds titles rest in Egyptian hands.
Although Perry boasted an epic five set victory over World No.1 El Welily the last time they met in the final of the Oracle NetSuite Open back in October, the modest Englishwoman says all the evidence points to further Egyptian euphoria in Chicago's iconic Union Station.
“I think you have got to make Raneem favourite. She is the World No.1, has just reclaimed the top ranking and is the defending World Champion,” said Perry.
“The thing about Raneem is that people will talk about her high skill level but she has a hugely sound base to her game. She just does everything, especially the basics, really well.
“In that respect you will hear people talking about a fantastic drop shot she has feathered into a nick, but it will have been the immaculate length of the drive before it that will have set the drop up. On top of that Raneem is a superb mover and I think that she has become mentally much stronger with every big win she has racked up.
“She is the form player on tour in the ladies game and she will be very difficult to beat.”
Birmingham-born Perry made her breakthrough in 2011 when she defeated Tania Bailey to win the Manor Open and capture her first tour title before collecting a further three titles to finish inside the top 30 in 2012.
Now Perry has no doubt that the women's game has more quality to it than at any time during her eight years at the top.
“I have no doubt that the strength depth in the ladies game is stronger now than at any time I have been on the tour,” said the 28-year-old.
“The depth in the women's game means that you have up to 10 players who are capable of going deep in the draw in Chicago with maybe up to six players in with a shout of making the semi-finals.
“On top of that the World Champs are the biggest tournament ever in terms of the $1million prize pot and the huge amount of ranking points available and I think that will make every girl in the draw determined to push herself through the pain barrier.”
But Perry believes the main threat to the Egyptian hierarchy at the top of the women's game comes from Antipodean ace King.
“Joelle is the major threat to the Egyptian dominance right now. She is at a career high of World No.3 and she pushed Raneem all the way in the semi-finals of ToC in a really tight four-setter.
“Obviously I have had some pretty epic matches with Joelle like the 2018 Commonwealth Games final and she is just one very determined lady who will not give in and has the type of game that, when it is on, she need fear no one.
“On top of that when Joelle won her first Platinum Series title in Hong Kong she beat Raneem in the final. So there is no way she will be going into Chicago believing anything else than that if she brings her 'A' game she can win her first world title.
“But Joelle won't be the only girl thinking that. Outside Raneem and Nour [El Sherbini] you have Camille Serme, Nour El Tayeb while Tesni Evans will take a lot of confidence from winning her second British National title at the weekend.”
In many ways Perry's remarkable recovery from elbow surgery just eight weeks ago to take her place in the draw on Saturday evening against Hong Kong's Vanessa Chu represents a triumph in itself.
But despite her last competitive match coming in the semi-final of the Hong Kong Open back in November, Perry nurses a quiet optimism that a decent draw in the 'Windy City' may allow her to blow away the cobwebs and go deep in the draw.
“Obviously having been out of competitive squash for three months and undergoing elbow surgery it is a big ask to come back at the Worlds but there was just no way I was going to miss Chicago.
“What is important for me now though is that I focus on my game and don't start getting ahead of myself.
“I have done a lot of work on my fitness and been able to get back on court in the last fortnight and I am good to go for my opener on Saturday against Vanessa Chu. Obviously I am aware that Tesni Evans is in my quarter and we have had some cracking matches.
“In fact the last time we met I had to come from two down in Hong Kong and with Tesni winning the UK nationals on Sunday night she will be brim full of confidence.
“But for me all my focus is on producing my best squash against Vanessa and making sure that I am in the second round come Saturday night. I do believe if I can play myself into the draw then the extra work I have done on my fitness could really stand me in good stead but only time will tell.”