TIM KING: Congratulations, Judith, on becoming the latest WCF Women’s Golf Croquet World Champion. How did you feel when you woke up this morning and remembered what you achieved yesterday?
JUDITH HANEKOM: I'm still not quite sure that it's sunk in, to be perfectly honest. I feel a bit stiff. I've never played a best-of-five match before, and I am definitely physically tired.
TIM: I know you're good friends with many players you've met from across the world in both Association Croquet and Golf Croquet events. But for those readers who have not met you before, would you like to introduce yourself?
TIM:: Am I right in thinking that Reg Bamford was one of those youngsters? We'll talk more about him again, but what are your first memories of Reg?
JUDITH: Yes he was. Reg is a couple of years of older than me. He could be rather serious but once he got going he was always good for a laugh. On the croquet court, by the time that I first met him, he was already a very accomplished player. But I do remember beating him at AC once in Pietermaritzburg. His father was kind enough whenever I met him to encourage me by reminding me of that day. Reg has always been one of the inspirations for me to improve my croquet.
TIM: So, you have been playing croquet for almost thirty years. Have you always played to the same extent over that period or have other commitments interfered with your availability to play?
TIM: Indeed. Checking the rankings databases, I see that Jenny Clarke has played 1734 games of Association Croquet and 309 games of Golf Croquet, while you have only 270 and 76 respectively. Even Rachel Rowe [2011 champion, from England] had played 131 games of Golf Croquet before the start of the 2011 Women’s GC World Championship. How prepared did you feel before arriving in Cairo this week?
JUDITH: I'm sure I benefited from playing in the open Golf Croquet World Championship last year here in Cairo. The courts are not especially unusual but the Egyptian hoops demand a lot of respect. I also confronted local players on that occasion. They're wonderful people but tough opposition, especially when the crowd is behind them. The atmosphere can be amazing, but having got used to potential distractions like the call to prayer, I actually find a sense of calm amidst the general excitement. My Pidcock mallet was not always ideal because the sheen of the carbon fibres sometimes seems to cause confusing reflections under the floodlights when I'm casting. With respect to my standard of play, I was coming from the off-season in South Africa and have mainly only been able to practice on my own. I concentrated on Association Croquet for many years. I played in the Association Croquet World Championship in England in 2005. But then I was selected for the South African team in the Golf Croquet World Team Championship in Johannesburg in 2012. In a singles match, I played Sherif Abdewahab, who is originally from Egypt but was representing the USA. His style of play suddenly made realise that Golf Croquet had a challenge I had not previously appreciated.
TIM:: You were the only woman to play in that event. And you also partnered Reg Bamford in some of the doubles matches. How was that experience for you?
JUDITH:: Reg is such a precise player, very different to the way I felt about my own play. He would ask me to play certain shots. I would like to think I didn't let him down very often, but I didn't always immediately understand the reason for his choices. The camaraderie among the players was also extremely special and this helped me to realise that I wanted to try more Golf Croquet in addition to my Association Croquet.
TIM: I was the manager of that event and I remember you playing some great shots, including some brave and effective jump shots. I saw some definite signs that you knew you could improve further. This week was the first opportunity since then for you to play in a Women’s Golf Croquet World Championship. Was it inevitable that you would compete for your first time?
TIM: I have heard stories of players in the past who are not using their own mallet when they go on to win tournaments. Perhaps the feeling at the check-in counter must have been worse than anything you felt at any stage while you were playing this week. But how did things go once you started to play?
JUDITH: It definitely took me a while to settle in. My play during the block stage was certainly not an ideal start. I scraped through with a single win in fourth place and was one game away from not even qualifying. I have not said this to anyone until now, but after the block stage I took a step back. Amir had mentioned to me that I was dropping my knees as I played my shots. I consciously avoided this in the second half of the Championship, except for when needing to put extra power in the shot. I also had a re-think on the basis of watching other games, especially the Egyptian players. Marwa Moustafa, in particular, made me realise that approaches must consistently be to a position from which running the hoop is possible. She also manages to achieve a wired situation as the result of many of her clearances.
TIM:: You've already told me that your first Golf Croquet experience was to shoot on sight. I saw you playing on the first two days of this Championship and felt you were too aggressive. How do you feel this aspect of your game evolved during the week?
JUDITH: By not thinking about the best results for my approach shots and the subsequent position of the balls after the opponent plays a clearance, I feel that I was often having to chase the situation and use my big shots too early and too frequently. Not every player has such shots, and they are not a guarantee of success in the game. Lawn conditions play a major part in determining how confident one is when shooting at distance. As my results began to get better, I felt much more relaxed about clearing from greater range, and by the final I was achieving a level of success that far exceeded those first two days. I still can't quite believe I beat four Egyptian players in a row to reach the final. I'm full of admiration for their tactical awareness and clean ball striking. They are such sweet people though, and I'm going home having so many new friends, too.
TIM: One of the key features of the final was ten hoops where the opponent peeled the ball through. Some were failed jump shots, but four were definitely unlucky in terms of the ball not having been directly in the jaws. What went through your mind as these swings in fortune took place?
JUDITH: [laughs] I'm not quite sure you'll be able to print that! You know what you feel like when you peel an opponent through. But at the same time one has to forget what has happened because one cannot undo what has been done. If one lets those things hang around in the mind then these can affect the next two hoops or more.
TIM:: So having fought your way through the final, South Africa now holds both the open and Women’s GC World Championships. Is that just coincidence or is there something in the South African mentality that has contributed to this success?
TIM: Since winning the 2011 Championship, Rachel Rowe has gone on to further success, including becoming the first female player to win the European Golf Croquet Championship. What ambitions do you now hold for your croquet career?
JUDITH: My dream match would definitely be to play Reg in the final of the open Golf Croquet World Championship. But perhaps that is rather large for a first step. I really need to let what has happened sink in, returning home to see my family who have been so wonderfully supportive of my love for the game. I'm sure there are many players back in South Africa who will now be determined to beat me, so in the first instance I'll have to live up to my new-found status. On a final note, there are many people I need to thank for their encouragement and good wishes. They're too numerous to list, but they know who are; big hugs from South Africa!
TIM: Thank you, Judith, for sharing your story with me. I'm sure there will be many players in the croquet community who will be delighted and inspired by your success. Well played, and we wish you well in all your future adventures in croquet.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER: Dr. Tim King is the recently elected Chairman of the Council of the Croquet Association, leading development of policy for the governing body in England. He was in Cairo to serve as Tournament Director of the Championship, having previously managed the open Golf Croquet World Championship in London in 2011 and the inaugural Golf Croquet World Team Championship in Johannesburg in 2012. He plays both Association Croquet and Golf Croquet, having been a member of the English Croquet Association since 2004.
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