By James Zug
Jenny Duncalf and Rachael Grinham are two of the greatest squash players of the early twenty-first century and leaders on the professional world tour. As they mature in their careers, they have come to realize that because of that profile, they can have a major impact on thousands of people without hitting a ball. They can be pioneers.
Duncalf, born in Haarlem in the Netherlands, grew up in Harrogate in northern England. Like her father, an oil-rig engineer, she was obsessed with Liverpool football and plastered posters of the Reds on her bedroom walls and donned head-to-toe Liverpool kit on game days. She was one of five girls to attend an all-boys school in Harrogate—she was called a “day-boy.” She loved playing rugby, cricket and football. When she was nine she was gutted to find out as a girl she would not be able to play beyond the U10 football level, according to Football Association rules at the time.
She switched to squash. The Harrogate Squash & Fitness Centre became a second home. On Friday nights her parents were at the bar and she and her brother David and other kids played three-quarter court down below; the next morning the kids returned and spent all day at the club, sometimes sneaking into the Great Yorkshire Showgrounds next door.
Her parents broke up when she was eight, and her mother eventually started dating David Pearson, the coach at Harrogate. Duncalf was perhaps destined for a pro career. She passed her A Levels and was always one of the brighter kids in the class but her passion was for squash not academics. When her parents came home after a night out, she would sometimes pretend to have fallen asleep with her notes and textbooks spread out on top of her. When she finished school, she turned professional. (Her brother David went to the University of Nottingham and since 2012 has been a teaching pro at the Glencoe Club in Calgary.)
Duncalf has won ten PSA titles. She reached world No. 2; right now she’s ranked twenty-eight in the world. At one point, according to SquashInfo.com, she was ranked No. 2 for twenty-seven consecutive months, the longest streak at No. 2 in modern squash history. She’s earned more than a hundred caps playing for England. She’s been European champion three times, British national champion twice (in 2007 she came back from an 0-2 deficit in the final to survive a seventy-three minute saga with Alison Waters). Duncalf has hair-trigger hands and a very dependable backhand. Her forehand, observers said, has sometimes been too flat and she is occasionally unable to effectively lift the ball when she’s in trouble.
Nine months older than Nicol David, Duncalf has suffered from usually having a G.O.A.T. in her draws. They’ve played each other thirty-seven times since first matching up at the British Junior Open; David has won thirty-five times, beating Duncalf in finals of the World Championships, British Open and Commonwealth Games. Their most recent match was at this year’s J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions.
The twin Duncalf victories over David came in back-to-back tournaments in 2009, when she topped her in the U.S. Open in straight games and then in Qatar in five, both in the semis. She was on a torrid stretch that autumn, capturing three big tournaments in six weeks.
Rachael Grinham grew up in Toowoomba, a town ninety minutes west from Brisbane. She has a well-known younger sister, Natalie, who got to world No. 2, and totted up twenty-one titles before retiring earlier this year. Their father, John, an electrician, and their mother both played squash, and they grew up toddling around a court, too young to later remember the first time they actually played. Rachael entered her first tournament at age seven.
“There were four clubs in Toowoomba,” she said. “Each club had about ten courts. Squash was thriving. It was the usual thing: we’d all go over to the club on a Friday night and our parents would be in the club room having a drink and we’d goof around on the courts.” Grinham’s mother was one of twelve and her father one of eight. Grinham has more than forty first cousins; when she goes to family weddings, she sometimes doesn’t remember the names of relatives.
When she was sixteen, Grinham started training at the famous Australia Institute of Sport in Brisbane. Every Wednesday she took a bus to Brisbane in the morning, trained all afternoon and returned by seven in the evening. At eighteen she turned professional and moved to Brisbane to train fulltime at AIS with Ken Hiscoe, Geoff Hunt and Heather McKay. She first lived in an AIS apartment, before she and Natalie shared an apartment.
At twenty-one, she moved to the Netherlands. She stayed with Eric Smit and Daphne Jelgersma in Amsterdam and played for Meersquash, the squash club now owned by her brother-in-law, Tommy Berden. She later shared an apartment with Vanessa Atkinson. “We were both in the top ten in the world,’ Grinham said, “and we were barely scraping by. Europe was expensive and I couldn’t afford to live there.”
In August 1999 she went Egypt to play in the Heliopolis Open, the first women’s pro tournament in Egypt. “It was the first time any of us had been to Egypt,” Grinham said, “and we did all this sightseeing, taking tour buses, thinking that we may never come back to Egypt again.” Instead, she stayed for a while after the tournament, and Dr. Samiha Aboulmagd, the Egyptian women’s squash guru, suggested that she might train at the Heliopolis Club. Grinham relocated to Cairo. She shared an apartment with Maha Zein, the early Egyptian star who got to world No.19. Grinham ended up staying eight years in Egypt.
Grinham has an unorthodox, unpredictable game. Always improvising, she adroitly switches plans and tactics. In one game, she might lob and toss up floating, wide groundstrokes; the next game she cracks straight rails. She loves long drops, counter-attacks brilliantly and avoids patterns. With a low center of gravity—she is five foot one—she is quick to the ball and peerlessly precise when she gets there. “I play on instinct,” she said. “My main thing is to keep my opponent guessing, to not allow her to get any rhythm.”
She won the World Junior title in Kuala Lumpur in 1993. She has taken four British Opens and in Madrid beat her sister in the finals of the 2007 World Championship. She is fifth on the women’s all-time career list of tournament winners with thirty-four titles and was world No. 1 for sixteen months.
Her most iconic match is probably when she knocked off Nicol David in the finals of the 2007 British Open, coming back from a 2-0 deficit and saving match balls in the fourth game. A low point was against Shelley Kitchen in the first round of the Seoul Open the same year. She was at the top of her game and the loss to Kitchen had come after a number of less than ideal results. It was a sign of Grinham’s innate grit that two years later when she again faced Kitchen in Seoul, she hung on for a 14-12 in the fifth victory.
At age forty, Grinham is the senior stateswoman on the PSA tour. She’s presently ranked world No. 29. Her first appearance on the rankings list, according to SquashInfo.com, came in July 1994 (at world No. 64); nearly half of the top fifty today weren’t even born then.
They are yin-and-yang personalities. Jenny Duncalf is competitive and hates losing. Rachael Grinham handles pressure well, is more relaxed. She’s independent and thrives on the new. Duncalf has had the same coach all her life, a team around her, support from England Squash. Grinham has more or less been solo since leaving Brisbane two decades ago. Grinham is less instinctively social than Duncalf. When she was younger, Duncalf hung out at tournaments, watching other matches, talking courtside. “I wanted to play the best, watch the best,” Duncalf said. “I was excited to be at the big tournaments. I loved squash and wanted to be around it all day long. That isn’t how I feel now—that was a part of my squash learning curve.”
They had known each other for years but not very well. The English players tended to travel and hang out with each other, and Grinham was more elusive, a part of a different generation of players—she is nearly six years older than Duncalf.
In 2007 they played at the same tournament in Poughkeepsie. “I remember coming home and telling DP that I had made a new friend,” Duncalf said. The next tournament was the World Open in Madrid. Grinham beat Duncalf in the quarters in under half an hour. After the tournament, Duncalf messaged Grinham to congratulate her on her victory. They started keeping in touch. In Hong Kong, they went out celebrating a fellow player’s twenty-fifth birthday and spent a lot of time that night talking alone for the first time. After that, the romance slowly blossomed. In February 2008 they played at Apawamis, and by then they were a couple.
Duncalf was terrified people would know. At the European Team Championships in May 2008 she worried her teammates had figured it out (they hadn’t). Eventually, Duncalf drove to Leeds to see Vanessa Atkinson, an old friend from the tour. They sat down in her living room. Duncalf said she had something to tell her.
“Are you pregnant?” Atkinson asked.
“No, it’s worse,” Duncalf said.
In 2009 Grinham moved into Duncalf’s two-bedroom flat in Harrogate. In time, word got out on tour that they were dating. One of the people who didn’t know was her coach and step-father, David Pearson. He asked women on the tour, but they all denied there was a relationship. Finally, he and his wife Jo confronted Duncalf, who reluctantly admitted it.
“What I told her then is what I believe now,” Pearson said. “We are thrilled she’s found someone who makes her happy. We are happy for her because she’s happy. We totally support her. The only problem we have with it is that we’ll have to nip off all the way to Australia to see them.”
Grinham’s parents, also now divorced, were not surprised when she came out to them. They were glad she had a partner and in a committed, serious relationship, because by this time she was in her thirties.
Dating someone else of the same gender is problematic on the pro squash tour because you can be drawn to play each other. Duncalf and Grinham have faced one another twenty-two times. Duncalf leads 12-10—since they’ve been together, Grinham has beaten Duncalf just four times, but one, the semis of the 2009 British Open, was a doozy. There is a debate about how many racquets Duncalf smashed after she lost to Grinham in four; Duncalf said it was one, Pearson remembered three.
It can also be problematic when a couple breaks up. For a couple of years, Duncalf dated another woman on tour, and she and Grinham were not speaking. The drama coursed through the pro ranks, making for awkward scenes at tournaments.
As their careers wind down, their lives are in flux. They live together in Brisbane. For a while they planned to buy a squash club there, but there were complications with the bank loan and the deal fell through. Both players aim to make their national teams for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, which will be held next April in Gold Coast City, an hour south of Brisbane. (This could be the fifth Commonwealth Games doubles for Grinham, who won the gold medal in mixed doubles in Glasgow in 2014 with David Palmer.)
After the Commonwealth Games, who knows? Grinham is not someone who naturally gravitates to coaching, while Duncalf could possibly become a teaching pro or coach. She’s also begun to do more off-court around the game. She is commentating for SquashTV. As an emcee at the 2017 Allam British Open, she earned widespread praise for her wit and grace and her probing questions during after-match on-court interviews. “Intelligent and quality,” were the words Joey Barrington, the lead SquashTV commentator, used on air to describe Duncalf’s interviewing style.
They are not looking to be the poster children—they don’t seem themselves as leaders or spokeswomen for a movement. In this contemporary moment of gender redefinition and fluidity, they are more comfortable as two women who happen to love each other than as pioneering activists.
Nonetheless, they know they are breaking a historic barrier by becoming the first squash pros to come out publicly while still playing. There have been LGTBQ+ people at the top of the squash rankings before, but never have they had their sexual identities known to the world. In the 1980s, for example, many women on the pro tour were gay or bisexual. But it was strictly a closeted world. Some retired pros said that they felt obligated back then to not hold hands or be affectionate in public. They spoke about the emotional energy they expended to lead a dual existence, keeping their love life secret, submerging their authentic selves. The fear of getting caught was sometimes debilitating.
The fear was real. In May 1981 Billie Jean King became the first prominent female athlete to come out. In a twenty-four hour period after the news became public, King lost $2 million worth of endorsements.
Society has evolved since then, but some aren’t sure the squash world has moved that much. Many say there is a presumed heterosexuality in squash. Traditional expectations are hardly ever challenged or roles upended. There are very few prominent LGTBQ+ people in leadership roles. One example: very few of the gay men in squash have ever spoken privately about their sexuality to their colleagues on tour.
Last year, during a late lunch one day towards the tail-end of the U.S. Open, Jenny Duncalf and Rachael Grinham sat together on a couch at a restaurant in Philadelphia.
They talked about stories from the past. “I remember seeing Ramy as a kid, when he was a tiny little imp,” said Grinham. “I remember them all, Mo Reda, you name it.”
“Yes,” Duncalf said, looking out onto a busy street. “They are cute as kids and then they grow up and you can’t beat them anymore.”
They talked about travel mishaps. They remembered some of the best matches they’ve seen. They spoke about impossible things, dreams and brainstorms. Duncalf is a spitballer. Grinham humors it happily. It was one of those random conversations you have with your partner, something along the lines of whether you would rather explore outer space or the deep ocean or if you could have one superpower would you rather be able to be invisible or to fly.
They laughed and leaned into each other. They nibbled at each other’s plates, stealing French fries, borrowing a napkin.
Looking at her phone, Grinham said it was time to go: a visit to a museum awaited and they had to get there before it closed. They stood up and smiled and left, another ordinary couple heading into the afternoon sunshine.