RACHAEL GRINHAM – AT A TURNING POINT
It was a surprise to many people that an Aussie with forthright views and European connections would decide to live in Cairo, with its hustle and hugger-mugger, with its indigence and opulence, with its growing fundamentalism among women and its impenetrable Arabic script.
But it worked very well. She made friends, she enjoyed a warm climate, she saved money, and she became part of a great squash tradition.
And after seven years Grinham can reflect that five of them have been spent in the world's top three, that she has won three British Opens, and last year, just when some people were thinking the chance had passed her by, she won the World Open as well.
There's been one other achievement which actually pleased her more though – and more about that a little later.
Circumstances have altered radically for her. She has changed clubs and found it harder to train. The coach and friend with whom she was living, Maha Zein, has gone to the United States. Her mentality feels different.
“Suddenly, I am living on my own and I have never lived alone before. I am getting bored and feel like I need to get out,” she said.
The effect has been de-motivating and Grinham's fitness has declined, as her results in the first half of 2008 showed.
Her sister Natalie has been living a more separate existence too, having married the Dutch player Tommy Berden in 2006. Sometimes Rachael found herself happier and more productive in Amsterdam, where before tournaments she would prepare with Natalie, than she had been in Cairo.
“I have had enough here really,” she admitted. “I feel, like, for my squash I am getting a bit lazy here now. I am thinking of going back to Holland. But it depends how long it takes to sell the house.”
That may be longer than she wishes. The declining world economy may mean fewer visitors buying property in places like Shorouk, a new city thirty-five kilometres from downtown Cairo with tourist housing, where Rachael resides.
It is near a branch of the Heliopolis club, which links the Ismalia desert road with the Suez desert road. It sounds like a dusty, historic metaphor for the cross-roads in her life.
The road travelled brought a helpful journey. “In the beginning I came because it was a lot cheaper: I wasn't really affording to live in Europe,” she said.
“Also they have a lot of good squash players, and the training was good. And the weather is good. It's not cold and miserable. But it's different from what I am used to. And there are some things you wish they weren't the way they are.”
What might they be? She hesitated.
“I don't know if I can tell you. It's just getting things done. It's harder than in Australia or anywhere else, which is annoying.
“But there are some things which are easier and some which are cheap. You take the good with the bad. The people are really friendly.”
And some are really able. Not only has Grinham had good women like Engy Kheirullah, Omneya Abdel Kawy and Raneem El Weleilly with whom to practise, but boys ambitious to join the swelling stream of Egyptians on the men’s World Tour.
Inevitably though for a woman trying to make a living from squash, the major motive was pecuniary. “Originally I came because I had no money, but I have done well here,” she says.
“I have saved quite a bit all this time. And I can afford to enjoy myself and have a bit of a life – because I'm not really having a life here,” she concluded honestly.
But though Rachael may have been, by her excellent standards, “getting lazy”, the way she plays squash has nearly always remained memorable.
What she and Natalie achieve with their aesthetically satisfying and quite similar styles is sometimes as pleasingly conspicuous as their victories.
The decorative patterns of the rallies, the mesmerising footwork, and the deft and imaginative racket skills, were developed in amusingly devious circumstances many years ago.
The story, possibly embellished, says that as youngsters the sisters sneaked on to courts at their home town club in Toowomba when they weren't supposed be there, playing at dusk with the lights switched off.
Where it was hard to see, and perhaps when they didn't want to be heard, they developed light-footed and deft-handed lob-and-drop styles.
But the new uncertainty in her life has taken a toll upon it. She does not though want to quit the game yet. She feels more success is possible. Much though depends on completing the move.
“Eventually I want to go back to Australia, but it's not practical yet,” she said. So might she live in Amsterdam? “It depends on what happens,” she said, which sounded like a probably. “I could change my mind.”
Since settling in Amsterdam Natalie has become Dutch. Had Rachael ever considered changing nationality as well? Her answer was surprising.
“Yes, I did actually. Almost ten years ago I was almost going to play for Singapore. I was quite strapped for money.
“I did get quite a good offer. And if I won medals in the Asian Games I would have got quite a lot of money. But it fell through after a few months”.
Grinham was scuppered then by the Pacific Rim crash of 1998. She could be hindered now by an economic crisis in Europe. But has not winning the World Open changed things financially for her?
“Not really. It was great. But it was more so when I beat Nicol (David) at the British Open. That was more of a confidence boost,” she said.
Rachael needed intensive treatment on her back while playing in Seoul recently, but generally she has been injury free. It is probably the legacy of being such a wonderful mover.
But to continue, aged thirty-one, she needs to stay that way. She could, she admits with a shudder, be working in an office, nine to five. Will she do that when she stops? “I hope not,” she retorts. “I can't see myself quitting any time soon.”
She doesn't want to go back to Toowomba but might, she thinks, settle in Brisbane, where she has “one or two best friends.”
Trouble is, squash has not only taken her in unexpected directions, it's altered her horizons. One of her ambitions now is “to figure out what to do when I retire from squash.”
Which suggests she is not just looking for somewhere different? She has an eye open for something different too.