Gina Kennedy interview: Meteoric rise has everyone ‘gunning for’ squash star at the Commonwealth Games

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I’m the one with a target on my back now, says Gina Kennedy  (Photo Credit: Sam Mellish / Team England)
I’m the one with a target on my back now, says Gina Kennedy (Photo Credit: Sam Mellish / Team England)

Back in February, two supremely talented racquet stars were made life members of the Parklangley Club in Beckenham.

One will be familiar: tennis’ golden girl, the US Open champion and the darling of British sport, Emma Raducanu; the other perhaps less so, a squash player by the name of Gina Kennedy, whose rise has been almost as meteoric, soaring from outside the world’s top-150 to inside its top-10 in only a year, now among the favourites for gold at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

Had things gone a little differently, Kennedy might have been another Raducanu - or rather, Raducanu might have been another Kennedy, who is the elder by six years.

“I was playing tennis down here and my friend’s dad owned the club at the time,” Kennedy explains, talking to Standard Sport in the bar at Parklangley, where she still trains. “He wanted his daughter to play squash so he approached my parents asked if I’d play with her.

“To be honest, I stuck with it mostly because it was less of a time commitment than tennis. There was talk that I’d have to be home-schooled so I could have time to play tennis more and my parents didn’t want me to go down that route.”

Kennedy could just as easily have ended up a Laura Muir or Keely Hodgkinson, too, having been a prodigious runner who once won London’s Mini Marathon, only to shelve what had been her best sport in her early teens.

“I just couldn’t deal with the pressure,” she says. “I just thought that winning was the only option and I just hated it, I’d be crying two weeks before the race.

“I never got that with squash, I felt I could control it more, I guess. If you lose a few points you can get back into it but the thought of running and not winning was horrible.”

The picture having built of an abnormally gifted, all-round sportswoman, it will come as little surprise that Kennedy’s talent on the squash court swiftly became clear, taking her to numerous national age-group titles and eventually on to Harvard University, the dominant force on the American collegiate squash scene.

“You think about what you see on TV and, to be fair, it is quite similar,” she says of her time in the States. “Parties at these big mansions with the red cups! I loved it there, I had such a good time.”

It all ended abruptly, when the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020 and Kennedy was given a week to get out and get home, but she credits the absence of competition throughout lockdown with giving her the time to lay the foundations for her incredible breakthrough on the professional circuit in 2021.

Like Raducanu, though, she has found the notoriously difficult second album more of a challenge since.

“I’m at my highest ranking [No8] but, to be honest, recently my confidence has probably been the lowest it’s been,” she admits. “Just because I’m now always playing the top girls and they’re still a level above.

“Last year, I was just winning all the time and you feel on top of the world. The level is different but winning is what feels good and even if I’m losing to the world No1 or No2, it still shatters your confidence a bit.

“It’s definitely harder and it’s harder in the early rounds of competitions, too, because I’m the one with a target on my back now. Before it just felt like a good opportunity to try and take down some scalps, whereas now everyone’s gunning for me.”

With the Egyptian players who dominate the head of the world rankings missing, the Commonwealths look an ideal opportunity for Kennedy, who goes into the women’s singles competition as the No3 seed.

The Games will also represent something close to the realisation of an ambition Kennedy set out as a child, long before it became clear quite where her sporting calling lay.

“My dream was always to be an Olympian,” she says. “Obviously, we’re not an Olympic sport but going to the Commonwealths, getting my Team England kit - 12-year-old Gina would’ve loved that.”

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