Aira Azman was destined to play squash.
As the younger sister of professional players Aika and Aifa and growing up as the legendary Nicol David was at the peak of her powers, Azman knew from an early age that squash was what she wanted to do.
Despite the shadow cast by her sisters, with Aifa reaching World No.21 last year and sensationally winning the Malaysian Open in 2021, the youngest of the Azman sisters has begun making headlines of her own, with the 18-year-old winning the Asian Junior Championships in 2022 and playing a vital role in Malaysia’s unexpected run to the Squash World Cup final last month.
Now, in her final World Junior Championship, Azman is hoping that her experience can help her, particularly in the women’s team event.
For all the talent Malaysia has produced, the nation has never won a team championship, with painful defeats coming in the finals in 2001, 2007, 2017 and 2019.
“I think for me it’s alright [to transition from the individual championship to the team event] . I’ve been playing Asian Junior Teams and World Cup, which have shown me how to play a team event. I’ll be looking out for my junior teammates who will be there with me, I hope they can prepare well and do well,” Azman says
“They’re a little more inexperienced than me at team events, so I just want to show them how it’s done and we can do this!
“For me, the most important thing is knowing that even if you win or lose, then there’s always the team behind you and it doesn’t matter what result you get, just give everything on the court and play well for the team and not just yourself.”
The 18-year-old, who is 3/4 seed in the individual championship, remembers the advice she was given by her teammates and sisters and how it helped her.
“My sister Aifa has given me a lot of advice. I remember at the Asian Juniors [2023 Asian Junior Team Championships] I lost to India’s Anahat Singh when I was leading the team and I was quite upset about it. But my sister told me ‘it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, you win together and lose together’
“And my team went on to win the tie [with Whitney Wilson beating Yuvna Gupta and Yasshmita Jadishkumar beating Pooja Arthi Raghu] and they told me afterwards ‘‘it’s ok, we won for you!’
“So I hope I can lead the team well this year.”
As one of the older players at this year’s championships, Azman admits it will be bittersweet, with this her final World Junior Championship and one of her last ever events as a junior.
“I’ve been playing since I was 14 in India, that was my first World Junior Championship, so I’m quite sad that this will be my last one.”
The Malaysian admits that last year’s championship, in which she exited in the quarter finals after a loss to Egypt’s Salma El Tayeb, came as a disappointment and that she’s targeting a better result than her 3/4 seeding this year.
“I’m hoping to make it to the final this time.
“I think I’ve done pretty well this year and have done better than last year. Last year, I was away from squash for almost three months because of important subjects at school that I had tests for, so I didn’t really have a good training [block] for last year’s World Juniors and I hope that this time I can make it.”
The 18-year-old adds that examples from her role models have been helping her improve her game.
“Besides my sisters, at the beginning of my career, there have been two players I’ve really looked up to. Of course, our legend Nicol David, but Nele Gilis is someone I really look up to. I think the way she plays is quite different to me, her game is more structured. I’m a bit of a shot-player and I like to keep it short, but Nele likes to make longer rallies and I hope that I can apply more of that in my game.”
With the young star impressing in the last year and cracking the top 50 in the PSA World Rankings this season, she’s optimistic that she can have a successful professional career, which she plans on balancing with a sports science degree at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
“Since I’ve been doing well this year, I feel that it’s going to be my career for quite a few years.
“Before I thought ‘I can’t do this!’ But now I think: ‘this is for me!’”
Aira Azman was speaking to WSF media ahead of the 2023 WSF World Junior Squash Championships, which are taking place 18-29 July in Melbourne, Australia.
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