Tesni Evans could end 2018 with another title in Monte Carlo, consolidating her status as one of the leading squash players in the world. But if it’s fame and fortune she’s after, she’s probably in the wrong game – at least for a while – as she tells Graham Thomas.
Tesni Evans laughs and rolls her eyes before confessing that the subject matter – money – is a popular one on the women’s professional squash circuit.
“It’s a bit of a running joke,” says the ninth best player in the world. “A lot of the girls will mention a female tennis player who’s just said they don’t get enough prize money – or a guy complaining about the same – and ask, ‘I wonder how they’d cope as a squash player?’
“It’s something that squash players talk about a lot amongst themselves. We do nothing less than tennis players – the same amount of work, of travel and so-on, and in our sport the women play the same length of matches as the men.
“But it’s all about TV income and at the moment tennis have the numbers watching them.”
The ninth-best squash player in the world, and the winner in April of Wales’ first Commonwealth Games medal in the sport for 20 years, could bank £14,000 this weekend if she wins, having reached the final of the Monte Carlo Squash Classic.
Better than a poke in the eye with a racquet handle, but not even the crumbs from the table compared to the lavish banquet that is the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour.
If Evans had been the world No.9 tennis player this year – a spot occupied by Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens – she would have picked up £2.5m in prize money alone, with a healthy dollop on top from sponsorship.
As it is, the entire prize money on offer all year for the Professional Squash Association (PSA) women’s world tour was £2.1m.
World No.1, Egyptian Nour El Sherbini, pocketed £170,000 in prize money but most of the women in the world’s top 10 do well to clear £50,000 once they have paid out for global travel and accommodation.
Still, Evans – arguably Wales’ least recognised world class sports star – didn’t enter the sport for its riches, although it’s nice to daydream of a world where thumping a ball against a wall was as lucrative as hitting one over a net.
“It’s a bit annoying because we have such a good product and the sport is going in the right direction,” says the 26-year-old who was born in Cardiff but grew up in Rhyl.
“It has certainly improved from when I started six or seven years ago, but it’s not yet where it should be. But, I suppose, we can earn a living and we’re doing a sport that we love.
“If we could get into the Olympics, then the sport would start to really take off. We missed out for 2020 and everyone was a bit down about that, but now it looks as if we might get in for Paris in 2024. That would make a massive difference because people would see how good squash is on TV.
“Nour El Sherbini probably does okay when it comes to prize money and if you go through the airports in Egypt you get an idea she might be doing okay with sponsorship, too.
“Last year, my sponsorship deals started to go up a little but it’s nothing dramatic. I don’t even have an agent, but if there was someone who could bring those deals in for me – instead of me having to do it myself – that would be amazing. It’s not really something I want to be doing during the season and to be honest it doesn’t really suit my personality.
“Normally, my sponsors are business people who happen to like squash so it’s a bit of a small world.”
Evans’ hugely impressive climb into the world’s top 10 came earlier this year after a purple patch in which she became the first Welsh woman to win the British National Championship, earned bronze for Wales at the Gold Coast, and then reached the semi-finals of the US Open.
Her recent progress has been remarkable, given the sport’s lack of profile in the UK compared to the Middle East and parts of Europe and Asia, the absence of a professional team in Wales until this season – and the creation of the Cardiff-based Welsh Wizards who compete in the Premier Squash League (PSL) – and her own lack of inches.
At 5ft 3in tall, she is the shortest player in the elite top ten and often gives away more than six inches to the likes of El Sherbini and England’s world No.6 Sarah-Jane Perry.
It has meant she has had to work on other areas of her game in order to rub shoulders with women who might otherwise physically dominate her. Opponents who once might have looked down on the Welsh terrier are now having to suck it up.
“There is no one thing that prompted the success this year. It’s been a combination of things and hard work over the past couple of years.
“It has been maturity, just putting everything together. I felt like I was starting to play better last year and I’d found a fitness regime that I liked doing. I wouldn’t say I am lazy person when it comes to training, but I’m laid back.”
Her out of season routine consists of morning track sessions at Bangor University, where she’s upped her number of repeated sets of 400m runs from 10 to 16 in a session.
She then does an afternoon session on the court, coached by her father Andrew or veteran Wizards star and former world number three David Evans. In season, she will do her running on a treadmill and then play practice matches in the afternoon, usually against a male opponent, sometimes her younger brother Emyr, who is just outside the world’s top 100.
“In other years against the top girls, I’ve faded away a bit on court. But this year I’ve able to stay there. I also keep my high intensity higher in training sessions.”
She has also added a sport psychologist to the mix. After a couple of years of losing matches she felt she should have won – and stewing over those defeats for days afterwards in an angry fuzz – she has become more clear-sighted.
“My concentration levels were not great. I would zone in and out, so I might win three points but then lose seven. I needed to find the balance between being aggressive and keeping my calm.
“I now use a guy called Hamish. He’s been a massive help. I actually look forward to his sessions. He’s installed a lot of self-belief. I was never really sure I was good enough when I played the top players. Do I belong here?”
The match that really confirmed she did belong was Evans’ victory over world No.8 Laura Massaro last December at the AJ Bell PSA World Championship in Manchester.
“I’d played her three weeks before in Hong Kong and lost. I came off that match and was so furious with myself I wanted to break my racket.
“I’d let the match get away from me. That angry feeling lasted a good couple of days.
“When we played the next time in Manchester, I was really up for it. She had beaten me every single time in the past. But I kept control of my game and beat her and I felt so pumped afterwards. To beat someone like her, you have to be very strong mentally. If you’re weak you just won’t win.
“It put me into the quarter-finals and I thought, ‘this is where I want to be – in the final rounds of big tournaments.’ It felt like a turning point.”
In April, came her medal at the Commonwealth Games, where she felt able to cope with the expectations towards a player moving rapidly upwards.
“I had been at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow four years before, but this felt different. There was a lot more pressure on me which was difficult to deal with.
“But I’m starting to enjoy that pressure and that was probably the best I’ve played in the whole year.
“When I was on the fringes of the top 10, the attitude of the top girls to me was that it might be a tough game, but they’d probably win. Now, it’s different. And it’s everyone ranked outside the top 10 who’s after me. Now, I’m the one supposed to win.”
The fortune may not have arrived yet, unless your count being able to buy a house in St. Asaph with her squash-playing electrician boyfriend from New Zealand as fortune. But then, neither has the fame – on a relative scale, at least, to some top 10 ranked sports people.
No-one comes over for an autograph during our conversation in a Cardiff café, although when she later plays her match for the Wizards at the National Sports Centre at Sophia Gardens, there are a handful of eager squash-obsessed youngsters who all want a selfie with the team’s biggest name, before and after her match against St. George’s Hill.
“I can walk around Cardiff and no-one ever notices me. But I quite like that – going under the radar. I get noticed a bit more in the squash world. People say hi to me that might not have known me in the past.”
She laughs at the suggestion she might be getting text messages from other luminaries of Welsh sport – “I’d love a text from Geraint Thomas” – but squash players get used to carrying their own baggage, literally.
When she goes to events like the New York Open – where she lost to this month’s new world No.1 Raneem El Welily, another Egyptian, in the semi-final – there is no entourage of coaches, masseurs, head-shrinks, agents, media flunkies and someone to scatter rose petals before her footsteps.
It’s her, her gear, her racquet and her mobile phone to contact everyone else back home.
— Tesni Evans (@tesnievans) December 6, 2018
Sometimes, if the budgets stack up, her father or David Evans will accompany her to a tournament.
“My dad was the one who started me playing. He’s been the biggest influence on my career and he still is. But it works well with Dave also as my coach because they work on different things.
“When I have had bad performances and I’ve felt down, Dad can step in as my dad instead of just my coach. There are challenges and it’s the same with my brother playing. He’s also coached by my dad.
“The father/coach daughter thing has sometimes had a bad reputation in some sports like tennis, but it’s different for me. He doesn’t travel to all my tournaments so it’s not as intense.
“And he’s never been pushy. There was never any pressure. It was always up to me and my parents have always been supportive.”
Welsh hockey and football, though, may have lost out because of Andrew Evans. Tesni played both sports at Rhyl High School until a hockey ball whacked at her from close range injured her finger and prompted her father to suggest she give up the other sports if she wanted to be injury-free to play squash.
A few years on and whatever happens in Monte Carlo this weekend, Evans will finish the season as a top 10 world ranked squash player, and No.3 in the UK – a status no-one in the women’s game in Wales has come close to achieving before.
It’s a landmark, but still in her mid-twenties it’s not her proposed final destination.
“When I was younger I thought getting into the top 10 in the world would be the ultimate. But now I’ve done it, it feels strange.
“I want to do more, although the moment I was told I’d made it in to the top 10 felt incredible. It topped off a brilliant year.
“We have already talked about not sitting on my laurels, but working harder to go higher. The people around me want to push me to go higher.
“In individual sports if you’re having a bad day, there’s no-one to blame but yourself. You can’t blame any teammates.
“Sometimes you doubt if the sport is for you, so these achievements mean a lot – and I want more of them.”