After more than two centuries as an all-male sport, rackets, the explosive forerunner of squash and one of the world's fastest ball-games, is finally opening its doors to women. The inaugural Neptune Women's British Open Rackets Championship is being staged at Queen's Club this weekend, (February 26th-27th ) following a successful women's challenge match at Malvern College in November. The event has attracted a dozen entries, mostly of star players from other racket sports Among the favourites for the title, Queen's Club tennis doubles champion Alex Kurkjian, winner of the Malvern women's rackets challenge and World Real Tennis number 1 Claire Vigrass, 20 who has now turned her considerable talents to rackets and is keen to dominate both games.Kurkjian, 33, a passionate convert to rackets, organised the first women's rackets open evening, at Queen's last summer, led by former world champion Howard Angus, the Queen's professional with help from top amateur James Coyne. Several of the group's most talented players have entered the championship.
"I was absolutely addicted to rackets the moment I stepped on court" said Kurkjian an extreme sportswoman, who excels at snowboarding. "I love it, because it's such a fun, fast, adrenaline-pumping game. I've always encouraged other women to get on court and give it a go - and there's been quite an influx. We had around 30 at our first ever ladies' open evening, which was superb. Several of them have taken it up - mostly good tennis and squash players, and they've improved out of all recognition, thanks to Howard's coaching and the chance to play in friendly matches. The Open will be serious stuff though and as it's a first, everyone wants to win it.""When we started out, lots of people thought women couldn't play rackets because it was so fast and explosive" said former world Real Tennis champion Sally Jones, who has also entered the championship after training with Tim Roberts, the Malvern College coach. "It's not for everyone as it can be quite scary, but the people who enjoy it get totally hooked."Vigrass, a statuesque blonde 6-footer from Inworth in Essex recently achieved her first Grand Slam of major Real Tennis titles and sensationally won the British Under 21 title against an otherwise all-male field including three young professionals.
"It's great to be part of a first for women's sport" she said. "I absolutely love my rackets. I've been training at Queen's Club with some of the top players, including Will Hopton the world number 3 and everyone's been really encouraging. There's a pretty strong entry for the women's British Open, so it'll be a really competitive atmosphere. Because it's such an explosive sport it really helps speed up your reflexes and mobility for Real Tennis. We're all hoping this will be the first of many women's rackets championships."
Two girls' events are also being staged for the first time at the National School's Rackets Championships at Queen's Club in March. The junior and senior girls' British Schools singles championships, have attracted around 20 entries, mainly good all-round sportswomen from a variety of co-ed independent schools including Malvern College, Marlborough and Cheltenham College. Fiona Readman from Marlborough went into the record books in 2004 when she became the first girl to compete in the otherwise all-male senior schools singles championship, but this will be the first time that separate, all-female schools championships will be run.
Rackets began in the 18th century in the major London debtors' prisons, such as the King's Bench and the Fleet then spread to alehouses and the major public schools, including Eton, Harrow and Malvern College. Today it is widely acknowledged as one of the world's fastest ball-games, with the ball fizzing through at speeds of up to 180 mph, and it is currently played in 14 British schools and a handful of clubs. It remains a minority sport with around 3,000 regular players in Britain and North America, but it is growing in popularity as most of the schools' professionals now run evening clubs where anyone, including growing numbers of women, can come and try their hand at the game.
photos Janos Schmidt