Naughton a headliner at Canadian Women’s Open as top-flight squash returns to Toronto

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press
Naughton a headliner at Canadian Women’s Open as top-flight squash returns to Toronto

TORONTO — Canada’s Hollie Naughton was a young fan the last time a Professional Squash Association international tournament was played on an all-glass showcourt in downtown Toronto.   

This time around she’s one of the headliners. 

Naughton, who grew up in nearby Oakville, Ont., is seeded fifth at the Canadian Women’s Open starting Sunday at Brookfield Place. The field includes fellow top-20 players Salma Hany of Egypt and Americans Amanda Sobhy, Olivia Clyne and Sabrina Sobhy.

“I think anyone can beat anyone so it should be interesting,” Naughton said. “I know that if I can stick to what I want to do, anything is possible. So hopefully it all comes together.”

The 24-player women’s tournament is a bronze-level stop on the PSA World Tour. Competition will continue through Thursday.

Naughton, who won Commonwealth Games silver last year, has fond memories from when the tour used to make regular stops in Toronto.

She met Egyptian squash great Amr Shabana — one of her idols and a fellow lefty — at the old PACE Canadian Classic in the mid-2000s. A preteen at the time, she still has a picture taken with former world No. 1 Ramy Ashour and his older brother Hisham.

“Having that experience at such a young age I think is what pushes kids to keep playing,” Naughton said. “I think it was probably a big part of what helped me and pushed me to keep playing and wanting to go pro.”

Toronto first hosted the YMG Capital Classic men’s tournament in 2000 at Brookfield Place, a sprawling complex that’s also home to the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

With Canadian star Jonathon Power at the forefront, the event drew top PSA stars from the era like Peter Nicol, David Palmer and Lee Beachill. The tournament was later renamed as the Pace Canadian Classic and moved to a different downtown location before it was dropped from the tour calendar in 2009.

Power, who retired in 2006, won the tournament in three of the four years it was held at Brookfield Place. An image of his diving frame is imprinted on the ‘Power Court’ erected in the complex’s Allen Lambert Galleria. 

Organizers hope the restoration of the event and return to its original location will help pay homage to a golden era of Canadian squash while celebrating the country’s burgeoning women’s program.

Calgary’s Danielle Letourneau and Victoria’s Nicole Bunyan are also in the field along with wild-card entries Nikki Todd of Regina and Niki Shemirani of Toronto. 

“It’s very good timing for the women that we have involved in our sport right now and with Hollie Naughton at the very top of the (national) rankings,” said Samantha Cornett, Squash Canada’s manager of athlete development.

Naughton, who was born in England, is ranked 18th in the world.  

“It’s something like, win or lose, I just want to put on a good show,” she said. “Hopefully a lot of juniors will come out. You just want to show them how it’s possible and that it is possible for young Canadian girls to be able to do it. 

“Just like I had when I went to watch the Pace Classic, you just want to get them involved and show them what an awesome atmosphere it can be to play in.”

The two-time national champion was Canadian flag-bearer last year in Birmingham, England after becoming the first Canadian woman to reach the squash podium at the Commonwealth Games. 

“It still feels a bit surreal,” she said. “Everything that happened in those two weeks was kind of out of a fairy tale really.”

Naughton, 28, upset Joelle King of New Zealand — the current world No. 4 — in the semifinals before dropping a four-game final to England’s Georgina Kennedy.

“It showed me that I can compete with these top girls,” Naughton said.

Naughton, who has won three PSA titles over her career, reached the CIB Egyptian Open quarterfinals in Cairo this season. She also made the semifinals at the Oracle NetSuite Open in San Francisco.

“She has worked so hard on so many aspects of her game, from her movement to her execution to her mental game,” said Cornett, a former teammate. “And it really, really shows. She is so confident, she’s moving so well and her shot execution is stunning.”

Naughton will have a first-round bye. The tournament has a purse of approximately US$55,000.

Toronto has a rich history with pro squash. 

In addition to the Canadian Classic era, legendary rivals Jansher Khan and Jahangir Khan met in a memorable match at the 1990 Mennen Cup. 

The city has hosted several editions of the national championships. Squash was also played at Exhibition Place in west-end Toronto when the city hosted the 2015 Pan Am Games.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2023. 

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

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