Malvern College stages First British Women’s Rackets Doubles Tournament

22 Apr 2013

Malvern College Lower sixth former Shinan Zhang, 16, and sports teacher Chey West showed their rapid improvement with some fine performances in the first-ever British Women’s Doubles Tournament in the explosive sport of rackets, the ancient forerunner of squash, at Malvern. 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.

West and Zhang, one of the first girls to take up the sport and a finalist in last year’s national schoolgirls’ championships, faced a daunting opening match against the favourites Alex Kurkjian, the British number 2 and Karen Hird, a badminton and Real Tennis international. The home pair started slowly but managed to hold their own despite an accomplished performance from their big-hitting opponents. West, a Zimbabwean hockey international and outstanding sporting all-rounder who also coaches Worcestershire junior hockey squads, only took up the sport 3 months ago but underlined her natural athleticism with some extraordinary retrieving and volleying. The more experienced Zhang, who is also the British junior fives champion and plays in the West Midlands regional hockey team, 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 Ella Gaskell and American Real Tennis player Ashley Lenihan was far closer as West found her length and managed to cope effectively with the pace and variation of the serves. 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 untouchable forehands gave them the edge and they stormed through without dropping a game.
For Zhang and West, the championship was a highly enjoyable learning experience and a chance to mix it with four of Britain’s best players.
“It was our first major event as a doubles pair and we loved it” enthused Zhang. “Chey played really well, even though she’d never come up against such strong opposition. It’ll be really good experience for the national doubles next year and for my opening singles match in the British schools championship at Queen’s Club on Friday (March 22nd.) I’ve got really hooked on rackets – I now spend every spare minute on court, training with the boys’ team players and we’ve had great teaching from our rackets coach Noel Brett. We’re also lucky to have two courts – most other schools that play it only have one, so we never have to wait to get on court.”
“It was awesome” agreed West, a deputy house mistress. “Three months ago I couldn’t hit a ball so it was great to have the opportunity to play at this level and when I hit some winning returns off ultra-fast serves, I almost pinched myself and thought ‘I can’t believe I just did that!’ I live next door to the rackets courts so I’ll be trying to fit in as much training alongside all my other sport and teaching commitments as possible.”

Results: Malvern College. British Women’s Rackets Doubles Championship. Semi-finals:
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