fbpx

We still have to explain that Squash is like Racquetball: Nayelly Hernandez

Nayelly Hernandez is one of the few people in Mexico, a country where people live, breathe and die football, to have played squash professionally. Her squash journey has taken her on the PSA World Tour, to college at Trinity in the USA, and to Gold at the Pan American Games. 

Nayelly Hernandez may no longer be playing professionally, but through the game she has met her husband, is now coaching for a living, and working with Squash Latina. We caught up with Nayelly Hernandez to talk about her career, the game in Mexico and the transition to coaching.

Nayelly Hernandez at Trinity Bantam squash
Nayelly Hernandez at the Trinity College Squash courts. Source: Supplied

Zushan Hashmi: Squash and Mexico aren’t exactly two words you hear together very often. Tell me about how you got into the game?  And what it was like playing in your early years?

Nayelly Hernandez: My dad first introduced me to squash as he used to play it as a hobby. Back then, I didn’t even know it was an official sport and that it was for everyone (not just old men who liked chasing a ball around a court!)

Luckily, a new coach started working at the club where my dad played, and he brought with him a bunch of kids who he was working with (including the Salazar twins) so I loved seeing that kids played the sport and started taking clinics and lessons with a few of them.

Since there were not many kids in the state who played, it was not too hard to make the city team and that sparked a little fire in me. It was hard to play with kids my age and even harder to play different girls; it was always the same little group. However, there were some tournaments being held around the country and that helped with some variation I guess.

READ: Karen Redfern on Brazil squash and winning the Pan Americans twice

You then obviously were able to study at Trinity and became the first Mexican women’s athlete to play US college squash. What was the experience like?

When I was first contacted about the possibility of studying and playing in a university in the US, a friend of mine had to take the phone call as I didn’t speak any English! It took a few years to get in but I’m glad both my coach and I didn’t give up.

I started at Trinity in January 2008, so it was a hard transition since it was the middle of the school year and the squash season. To be honest I didn’t really know what to expect or what I was getting into in terms of how schools work there compared to home. It really took me double the time to keep up with my academic work, but I graduated with honours in psychology!

It was definitely one of the best experiences and opportunities I have ever had. To start with, I was able to study and keep playing the sport I love, which was something I wouldn’t really have been able to do at home; you either study or play! It was also a really great experience as I already knew some of the players from playing Pan American Championships and World Junior events, so it felt like being at home!

Another positive experience was to play for a team not just as an individual but also learning what teamwork is about. Graduating from Trinity [College] really opened life-changing opportunities for me, both in terms of work and social-wise. 

A couple of years prior to joining Trinity, you started playing on the PSA World Tour circut, how did that differ from when you were playing solely in Mexico as a youngster?

I did play a few WISPA now PSA events before going to Trinity, since we didn’t have many players in Mexico, our Federation decided that the top players should play some of the International events in order to get more match play and keep learning more about the game.

Those tournaments were in preparation for the Central and Pan American Games in 2006 and 2007. I didn’t really see myself as a professional player yet.

We still have to explain squash is similar to Racquetball, which is well known in Mexico thanks to the World Champion, Paola Longoria, except I still believe racquetball is the easy version of squash! 

You then played on the circuit for 10 years, over this period of time, how do you think the sport changed?

I played the circuit part-time during the 10 years, picking tournaments only when we had events coming up for the National Team until I graduated from Trinity where I tried to play more events. I feel that the game, of course, changed during that time, starting from the scoring format, to the height of the tin for women.

Also, more and more women were preparing harder and harder physically, I believe the depth for that change. The support to the women’s game also varied during all this time, there were periods where there were not many tournaments for women and other periods where it seemed we had a more solid stable tour.

Coming to squash in Mexico, how much has the game developed there, since you first began? (Are there pockets of squash playing areas or is it spread out?)

Having a player like Samantha Teran in Mexico really helped to grow the sport there. She was actually the one introducing the PSA tour to the rest of the women’s team. However, the system we currently have in place has not helped to grow the number of players around the country.

There are pods in Mexico where squash is played. My hometown, San Luis Potosi, used to be one good hub for squash. The generation of the Salazar twins, their sister, and few other players I grew up with helped with keeping squash strong in our city. Another pocket is Mexico City where most players come from.

Many more squash courts around. Another state that has been growing a lot is Jalisco as they have a great program where the government supports the players to study and play squash. 

I would love to participate in the World Masters. Keep supporting the game in any way I can, right now through Squash Latina I am able to support a group looking to grow and support female players around the world.

I imagine, in spite of this, the viewership numbers are quite limited there? What is the perception of people in Mexico, when you tell them that you played squash professionally?

[Laughs] Even when I represented Mexico at Pan Am Games and I said I did so in squash their response was “oh, you must know how to swim very well!”  We still have to explain squash is a similar version of Racquetball, which is well known in Mexico thanks to the World Champion, Paola Longoria, except I still believe racquetball is the easy version of squash! 

Nayelly Hernandez on the court
Nayelly Hernandez on the court (Source: Supplied).

And over your pro career, was it easy for you to make a living playing the game?

I definitely did not make a living out of being a professional squash player. I played full time only after I graduated from trinity in 2010 and until 2015 and only playing the tournaments I could around the national events I was required to. My highest ranking was 57 and at that point, there’s not much money to make in the tour.

What has been the highlight of your career and why?

Definitely winning the doubles gold medal at the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara 2011. Being part of the national team to play at an event which is every 4 years and the host was home in Mexico, which allowed my family to come and watch me play an international event.

All of Mexico’s eyes were on this event, and squash was definitely targeting a few medals, except the women’s doubles was not expected to be in the podium as we were not seeded. So making it to the top of the podium, listening to our national anthem and having my family by my side was nothing less than ecstatic. 

I would love to see squash more and more accessible to all people all over the world. Squash is definitely an amazing sport, challenging on all different aspects physical, technical, tactical, mental and so fun at the same time! Everyone deserves a shot at it.

Who are some of the players that inspired you while and before you played and why?

In my early years, it was definitely Samantha Teran, the best female player from Mexico who was a top player in the world! It was amazing to see her discipline and focus, her super fitness, really trying what it takes to be a top player.

Also, Nicol David who seemed invincible and carried herself always with such humbleness; talented in every aspect of the game!

How about nowadays? Who do you rate currently on the professional squash circuit and why?

I have also always been a fan of Raneem El Welily who just recently retired from the tour as world number 1.

READ: Catalina Peláez, from Colombia to Squash’s top 60: A squash story

What have you been up to since retiring from the professional game?

In 2015, I decided to end my full time career as a squash player and transition into a coaching career. I moved to the US to work at Chelsea Piers, Connecticut, under Natalie Grainger, former world number 1, whom I learnt a lot from.

Then, decided in 2016 I could still make team Mexico to play Pan Am Championships and World Teams and I did.

My very last event was the World Team Championships in Paris where I was proposed to my now husband Chris Walker. After that, I continued my coaching career, finished a masters degree in Sports Psychology and became a mom of a baby girl we named Maya Elizabeth. Now, Im still coaching and getting my certification from World Squash Federation Coaching Level 1 and also pregnant with my second baby!

Nayelly Hernandez and co at the Pan Am Games
Nayelly Hernandez and co at the Pan Am Games (Source: Supplied).

Having been in the game so long and seeing it change, where would you like to see squash globally, and particularly from a Mexican perspective, in the future and why?

I would love to see squash more and more accessible to all people all over the world. Squash is definitely an amazing sport, challenging on all different aspects physical, technical, tactical, mental and so fun at the same time! Everyone deserves a shot at it.

READ: Amanda Sobhy on her Achilles injury, a winning attitude and US Squash

And on your personal journey, what’s next in the squash world?

I am definitely continuing on my coaching path and will also keep working on my sports psychology area.

I would love to participate in the World Masters. Keep supporting the game in any way I can, right now through Squash Latina I am able to support a group looking to grow and support female players around the world.

Also, since I live in the US and gone through the college system I am able to support new generations… I have happily supported a few players whose life, like mine, has changed completely!

Any other thoughts or comments? 

I just want to thank you for your time trying to get squash more known! We definitely need more people like you!


Follow Nayelly Hernandez on Instagram.
For more Squash related content, follow Sportageous.
 

Hope you enjoyed this feature!
Click below to share with family & friends
The Sportageous Newsletter
© 2020| Sportageous
Scroll to Top