Area players to face international competition
Published 8:41 pm, Friday, January 19, 2018
NEW YORK — From Saturday to Wednesday, the best squash players in the world will be gathered at Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Station to compete in the JP Morgan Tournament of Champions.
Fairfield County is represented by two competitors in the women’s division - Olivia Blatchford of Wilton and Marina Stefanoni of Darien.
Blatchford, 24, the highest ranked American and No. 13 in the world, is looking to maintain her momentum from 2017, where she ascended 14 spots to her current position.
“I had really been struggling at the tail end of 2016, and it all culminated at the World Team Championships in Paris,” said Blatchford, who will play her first match Saturday. “I had a lot of truths to face, and for the first time I actually did face them. Most of it was really just realizing how lucky I am to do what I do, to have the life that I lead and also truly how much I love the game.”
Stefanoni, 14, is looking to continue her prodigal climb as the lone wild card selection for the tournament.
She plays the fifth-ranked player in the world, Nouran Gohar, in the opening round Saturday.
FAIRFIELD COUNTY STARS
Olivia Blatchford, Wilton
No. 13 player in the world…Top US women’s player…Turns 25 on Tuesday…Marrying fellow pro Alan Clyne in July
Marina Stefanoni, Darien
Freshman at Darien High School…14-years-old…Youngest Under-19 champion ever…Back-to-back Under 19 champion…Lone wildcard entry in Tournament of Champions
“It’s a great opportunity because I’m going to get to play against the No. 5 player in the world,” said Stefanoni, a freshman at Darien High School. “Since I’m still in high school, I haven’t really pursued playing pro tournaments much, so this is leading into it - a first experience towards seeing what it’s like.”
Stefanoni, however, is use to facing challenges. At the age of 13, she became the youngest Under 19 national champion ever and repeated the accomplishment again in 2017. Last month, Stefanoni won the US Open Under 19 at Yale University.
“She really is playing at such a high standard at such an early age,” JP Morgan Tournament of Champions Tournament Director John Nimick said. “What she is doing is a huge step in American squash and is really, really exciting.”
Stefanoni aspires to serve as a liaison to the next generation of squash players.
“The (tournament organizers) want younger kids to get excited about professional squash,” Stefanoni said. “I’m young so there was sort of a connection. I’m hoping it will help to make squash (more popular) and get more kids to start playing at a younger age.”
An attraction of the event is the glass court at Grand Central is a spectacle in itself - spectators and commuters alike can watch the competition.
Both Blatchford and Stefanoni have attended the tournament previously as spectators, with Stefanoni describing the venue and atmosphere as incredible.
“It’s electric,” Blatchford said. “Walking on the court in Grand Central is exhilarating. The Tournament of Champions is a very special event for me. I grew up watching it year after year starting when I was still in diapers.”
If the atmosphere and stakes aren’t motivation enough for Blatchford, she can fall back on the mantra that’s helped guide her this far.
“My favorite quote is by Buddha, ‘If you like a flower you pick it, if you love a flower you water it,’” Blatchford said. “I accepted that I had done a lot of picking in my life and that the only way to go forward was to become a waterer.”