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Kurkjian and Hird Win British Women’s Rackets Doubles Tournament
Favourites Alex Kurkjian and Karen Hird win inaugural British Women’s Rackets Doubles Tournament at Malvern College
The favourites Alex Kurkjian and Karen Hird won the inaugural British Women’s Rackets Doubles Tournament at Malvern College with a stylish victory over second seeds Ella Gaskell and Ashley Lenihan in the final. The College has spearheaded women’s rackets, staging the first ever women’s challenge match in 2010 which helped to build momentum and led to the first national senior singles and schoolgirls championships the following year, even though rackets had been widely considered too fast and dangerous for women to play.
Their own pair, lower sixth former Shinan Zhang, 16, and sports teacher Chey West who only took up rackets 3 months ago showed their rapid improvement with some fine performances in their first senior event. They faced a daunting opening match against Kurkjian, the British number 2 and Hird, a badminton, fives and Real Tennis international but managed to hold their own despite an accomplished performance from their big-hitting opponents. Despite her inexperience, West, a Zimbabwean hockey international and outstanding sporting all-rounder who also coaches Worcestershire junior hockey squads underlined her natural athleticism with some extraordinary retrieving and volleying. Zhang, one of the first girls to take up the sport and a finalist in last year’s national schoolgirls’ championship was typically dogged, taking the lead on tactics, serving tightly and using her explosive forehand to good effect.
Despite going down in straight games, thanks to the favourites’ extra experience and weight of shot, the pair produced some sparkling rackets and improved visibly throughout the match to the delight of the enthusiastic gallery. Their next game against second seeds Old Haileyburian Ella Gaskell and American Real Tennis player Ashley Lenihan proved closer as West found her length and started reading the pace of the serves more effectively. Zhang again excelled in the forehand court and in the tense second game produced a stylish run of five points before a frustrating mishit from Gaskell produced an unreturnable dropshot which robbed the Malvernians of the serve and allowed their opponents to come through in style.
In the final Kurkjian and Hird again showed their class with a thrilling display of power rackets, cleverly cut serves and subtle boasts. Although Gaskell and Lenihan battled back to level at 8-all in the hard-fought second game, Hird’s fine volleying and Kurkjian’s explosive serves and forehands gave them the edge and they stormed through without dropping a game. Former world champion Howard Angus, a great supporter of the women’s game, presented the trophies and mischievously suggested that a match between the top women and the more chauvinist members of the male rackets-playing fraternity might prove a salutary shock to the latter
“It was a really enjoyable, friendly event” enthused Kurkjian who has been instrumental in establishing the women’s game, organising all-female sessions at Queen’s with Angus. “It’s encouraging to see growing numbers of women coming into rackets and promising newcomers like Ashley and Chey taking it up.”
“We played well together in the final, because Ashley and Ella pushed us hard” added Hird who is currently on a Young Real Tennis Amateur scholarship at Lord’s. “Our games complement each other’s – Alex serves well and loves to hit the ball hard while I like retrieving and play boasts and angles. Overall there was some good, highly competitive rackets played today and the standard is rising all the time."
Rackets, the ancient forerunner of squash, 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, Rugby 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 160 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 can come and try their hand at the game. Once an all-male preserve, growing numbers of women and girls are now taking it up and record numbers of teenagers are playing in the national schoolgirls championships this week at Queen’s Club.
Results: Malvern College. British Women’s Rackets Doubles Championship.
A.Kurkjian/ K. Hird bt S. Zhang/. C.West 15-3 15-3
Kurkjian/ Hird bt E.Gaskell/ A.Lenihan 15-8 15-3
E.Gaskell/ A.Lenihan bt S. Zhang/. C.West 15-5 15-3
Final: Kurkjian/ Hird bt Gaskell/ Lenihan 15-0 15-8 15-1