Last year, garlanded Yorkshireman Nick Matthew bowed out of the sport at the British Open, dubbed the ‘Wimbledon of squash’. On Tuesday night, Laura Massaro, an equally gritty Lancastrian, will step out on court at the same event for her farewell tournament, eager to prove why she is regarded as one of the most adaptable and consistent performers in a near 20-year career.
“Yorkshire and Lancashire are two counties which have huge history in building, construction and steel,” says Massaro. “My parents were a lot like that, work hard and get out of life what you put in.
“People have said my whole career I wasn’t fast enough, didn’t have the racket skills, or that I wasn’t fit enough. For Nick and myself, part of our personalities have been about trying to prove people wrong. It’s get your head down, a work-hard mentality, and reap your rewards.”
After turning pro in 2000, she did just that. Massaro became a world champion in 2013 and reached world No 1 in 2016 to become only the third Englishwoman to achieve the feat. In Hull, she will be aiming to win a hat-trick of British titles.
Yet, when Massaro finished her junior career, she had to fight to receive equal funding to fellow players. For more than two years she was told by then performance director that she did not have as bright a future. “At the time, I couldn’t believe it and I was devastated,” she says.
That was over a decade ago and Massaro is more reflective now. “If I had the chance to sit down with him [Peter Hirst] now and buy him a beer, I’d say thanks very much,” she smiles.
It has been about finding that “inner determination and drive” ever since, largely thanks to a supportive network, which includes her coach and husband, Danny.
“She has faced the truths every day,” says Danny. “She has never shied away from the reality of a situation and the tough conversations.”
With players asked to combat in close proximity on court, squash has always produced friction and needle, while on the women’s side, tour life is seen as more friendly.
“I haven’t really been a part of that,” Massaro says. “I’ve never thought of myself as necessary to make friends. I am here to win titles. It means I am going to be truly authentic to how I am as a person.”
She has needed to showcase this steely resolve during a career dominated by Nicol David, the great Malaysian who will also retire this week, the change to a lower tin and the influx of athletic and attacking Egyptians.
Three years ago, Massaro attempted to warm up for the British Open by playing in the Inter County men’s league. She was denied the chance on account of her gender, a ruling which England Squash has since amended.
“As she got older and with the confidence of being world champion, she could say more, and that women deserved as much as the men,” her husband says.
Massaro first announced her retirement earlier this month ahead of the recently-concluded Manchester Open, the first standalone women’s event for three years.
“It was great to see a young 10 or 12 year-old who could sit for three or more hours and watch women play. You could see them take it all in,” recalls Massaro.
“When we’re talking about trying to get women in sport and, more importantly, to stay in sport, having role models they can look up to, seeing them sweat and fight it out ... it is something they will hopefully look back on and say that was the moment they realised that women could be strong, powerful [and] be elegant and determined.”
Massaro will leave with the game in rude health and is enthused for the future. The Olympic Games may still be at arm’s length, but the women’s game is on financial parity with the men, while the world championships are backed by a Chicago billionaire.
Just to prove her durability at 35, Massaro is also the oldest in the top 10, a ranking list she has graced since June 2008.
However, such is the dynamic spectacle of modern squash that Massaro, who as eighth seed plays Belgium’s Tinne Gilis on Tuesday, realises that putting together a tournament run is becoming harder and “not sustainable for the future.”
However, she adds that it has not been about just doing a professional job in her final events before bowing out. “It’s about going on and proving I was top 10 for a reason. That’s something to be proud of.”