(Dawn): Pakistan’s squash player Maria Toorpakai Wazir put her name in the history books by winning the first ever women’s event in the Nash Cup in Canada by beating Milou van der Heijden of the Netherlands 13-11, 11-3, 11-9.
The victory gave Maria, who hails from South Waziristan, the third title of her WSA career after she won the Southwest Squash Open and the Liberty Bell Open last year in the US and was another milestone in her journey of immense courage and perseverance.
“When I win a tournament, I feel that I am moving towards my goals. So winning today means a lot to me,” Maria said after winning the Nash Cup.
Maria who had faced stiff opposition in her native Bannu for playing sport, often posed as a boy to compete in matches in her conservative hometown. She moved to Peshawar in 1999 to pursue her love for squash.
Upon her move, Maria was immediately inducted into the Hashim Khan Complex, named after the first great player to emerge from a Pakistani dynasty of squash players which dominated the international game for decades.
It was in Peshawar where Maria’s father really began to realise the true potential his daughter had. Representing Warsak High School in Peshawar, Maria became the youngest ever winner of the National Women’s Squash Championship toppling top seed Muqaddas Ashraf of Punjab in straight sets in the final at Karachi Club squash court in 2004. She was 13 at the time and while the cash prize of Rs. 8,500 and a crystal trophy felt good, it was really the satisfaction of being better than everyone that was to accelerate Maria’s drive. She quickly swatted away her competition, winning an Under-15 tournament and then at 15 winning the Under-19 Hashim Khan National junior championship in 2005.
She scaled up the national rankings, Dunlop racquet in hand and Mohammad Ali-like confidence, often calling her self the world’s best squash player in some of her post-match press conferences. It was this self belief and great form that finally brought her to the world stage, joining the WISPA in 2006. She was immediately at ease on the international circuit as well, reaching the semi-final stage of the 2nd WISPA International Women’s Squash Championship at the POF Jahangir Khan Complex in Islamabad.
In early August 2007 she was given the Salaam Pakistan Award by the President of Pakistan, alongside tennis player Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi and footballer Muhammad Essa.
The year 2009 saw her win her first international tournament when she beat the same opponent she had defeated as a 13-year-old. Muqaddas Ashraf once again succumbed to Maria’s power and agility losing the Chief of Army Staff International squash tournament.
But it was in 2011 that her fortunes really changed.
After learning of a job opening at Canadian squash legend Jonathan Power’s National Squash Academy in Toronto, Maria wrote an emotional letter to Power about the difficulty of training freely in Peshawar and about her aspirations of following in the footsteps of Pakistani greats. Moved by the plea, Power immediately took the young talent under his wings and vowed to make her a world champion.
The academy in Toronto gave Maria “10 out of 10” as far as talent was concerned but a lack of proper training meant she had a long way to go before she could compete with the top stars in the world. Her grit and determination, however, meant that it wasn’t going to be long until that happened.
Two titles in 2012, qualification in the British Open main draw (a first for Pakistani female players) and now the Nash Cup. For Power, who was in attendance at the London Squash & Fitness Club in Ontario, Maria seems to be headed in the right direction.