Rowan Damming began August 2022 as a promising yet inconsistent talent and ended the month having captured squash’s most prestigious junior title.
In the buildup to the 2022 WSF World Junior Championships, the 17-year-old was recognised as a player possessing potential, but considered unlikely to mount a serious threat to pre-tournament favourites such as top seeds Hamza Khan and Noor Zaman of Pakistan, Kareem El Torkey of Egypt and England’s Finnlay Withington.
In fact, such was his form going into last year’s championship in Nancy, France and the quality of the opposition, Damming admits that he doubted he would progress beyond the first round.
Speaking from Bendigo, Australia, where he has been training ahead of this year’s championship in Melbourne, Damming says: “Actually I was expecting to lose in the first round because I hadn’t been playing well in the weeks before. I just thought ‘we’ll see what we can do’.”
Damming’s pessimism proved misplaced, with the Dutchman putting together an incredible run that culminated in him downing 3/4 seed Withington in the final to become the Netherlands’ first ever World Junior Champion.
Now, one year later, the 18-year-old is preparing for his final World Junior Championship knowing all too well the pressures that come as the defending champion, with training for this year’s tournament beginning almost immediately after last year’s concluded.
“I’ve experienced being the target [as a defending champion],
“There are a few good players at the tournament so if I lose it’s not [a disaster]. But in my head of course, if I won last year I also have to win this year, but that’s more in my head than what everyone else is thinking.”
Damming adds that he feels he improved significantly since last year, which will stand him in good stead as the 18-year-old, who is the No.2 seed this year, prepares for his title defence.
Part of his training has involved working with a psychologist to help with the mental aspects of a sport that is often described as ‘physical chess’ due to the tactical battles on court.
“I just walk in and tell my psychologist my story, and he tells me what to do,” he explains.
“I think mentally I’ve improved a lot. Last year I played junior-style squash. Now, I play more senior squash. Fewer stupid mistakes and more building the rally.”
Helping Damming build his game have been his regular coaching team, including Sjef Van Der Heijden, as well as Damming’s own experiences playing on the professional PSA World Tour during his final months as a junior.
This preparation appears to have helped Damming peak at exactly the right time for this year’s championship. In 2023, Damming has appeared in five events on the PSA Challenger Tour, reaching the final in all five and racking up three titles, with the most recent coming in the City of Greater Bendigo International, where he beat Australian 21-year-old Dylan Molinaro.
These tournaments, which were selected by Damming and his team in order to give him the best possible preparation ahead of Melbourne, have left the Dutchman feeling confident about his own form, while also providing a few learning opportunities.
“I feel I’m playing quite good right now. I still have some small things to improve on and I feel good before the tournament so we’ll see what happens,” he says.
With the World Junior Championship one of his last ever junior events, Damming is eager to bring his junior career to a successful close before becoming a full time senior pro.
Though he has no specific target for the upcoming year, Damming is clear about his career ambitions. “I’ve always said that my main goal is to be the best Dutchman ever,” he says. “That would be top eight in the world. We’ll see how far I can go. I’m in the top 100 right now, then top 80, top 50 – step by step.”
Rowan Damming was speaking ahead of the 2023 WSF World Junior Championships, which are being played in Melbourne, Victoria, 18-29 July.
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