This may seem slightly random and out of the blue, but I wanted to put together a Jon Kemp appreciation post. Once dubbed the “English Shabana”, Kempy had a pretty decent squash career on the tour. He’ll never be talked about loads, and he didn’t reach the heights that perhaps he potentially could have done (like is the case for most of us), but he was a fine player who absolutely embraced the attacking style of play. He is now the head performance coach in New Zealand, where he lives with his wife Jaclyn (former World No.12), and their three (I’m sure delightful) children.
Myself and Kempy are almost exactly the same age, our birthdays being a week apart. He started playing before I did and was a top junior at the U12 level, just as I was starting out. I think he got injured and vanished for 18 months, before making a storming comeback in the U14 age group where he won the U14 British Junior Open. This is when I first heard of him. We soon became the two who were fighting it out at the top of the junior national rankings for the next 6 years. He was No.1 in England at the U14 and U16 age groups with me at 2, and then in the U19’s we swapped positions as I overtook him at the top as we both turned 19 and moved out of the junior rankings (a certain James Willstrop was sandwiched between us at this age too, even though he was 2 years younger!). When we started out on the PSA Tour, we both opted to play the same 3 event New Zealand Tour. This was the go-to summer tour for the younger tour players in our day, which several English guys played, along with many, many Australians. I think he reached the final of one and I also reached the final of another. After the last event we also enjoyed a drunken trip to hospital together before flying home the next day, but that’s another story! I think there might still be a bloody handprint on the Wellington Squash Club corridor wall.
Kempy rose up the rankings pretty quickly. He had this outrageously confident attacking style of play. No matter what the score or the situation, he would be happy to play whatever short shot he wanted, regularly hitting cross-court nicks from either side to finish off a game, or a match. This was a few years before Ramy burst onto the scene and rolled the ball out of the nick for fun; a time when the cross-court nick was considerably less common than it is today. ‘Kempy the Pioneer’ you may say! He also loved a “leisure centre boast” once or twice a game, a shot that wouldn’t even ‘pop’ into most people’s’ heads.
He held almost every shot, especially on his forehand, meaning he could be a nightmare to ‘read’, as almost every shot off the bounce was hit from behind his leading foot, hiding his racket face and point of impact with his body. I’ve never come across anyone else who hit the ball as low as what Jon used to do when taking the ball in to the front of the court. He would hit the ball mm’s above the tin, time and time again; whereas I would opt for a straight volley drop which was marginally higher and spin the ball tight into the wall, he would chop it in off the bounce with faded cross-courts, or volley cross-court nicks, and every time aiming incredibly low. The “professional tin” (17″ instead of the conventional 19″ in height) was absolutely perfect for Jon’s game.
This fearlessness without-a-doubt helped his PSA career. My memory is of his rise up the rankings is him playing a few tournaments in Pakistan. Most of us Europeans would avoid these, as we’d hear of times where the air-con would be “broken” and court temperatures would soar, and then a game later the air-con would be “fixed” and the temperatures would plummet to artic levels. I remember seeing some of his results, winning quick-fire 3-2’s in little over half an hour, then repeating it for 4 days and coming home with the title. One “marathon” final in Karachi he won 3-1 in 22 minutes! He never seemed phased by changes in court conditions, a massively important asset when travelling the world playing in different conditions every week. He was also suited to the majority of glass courts, as this gave him even more confidence to finish rallies.
However, he was not a reckless player who only went for outrageous shots, he would build a rally in the conventional way but would use much more ‘hold’ on each shot and he only needed the slightest invitation to take the ball into the front of the court (and by “invitation” I mean hitting a drive an inch away from the side wall!). He was a strong man, posing quite the intimidating figure in the middle of the court. This was possibly why he never reached higher than his ranking of No.20 in the World. Once an opponent could get the ball past him, he could tire and a few crucial mistakes would creep in to his game. If I’m putting my analytical, coaches hat on – I feel he would sometimes push too far in front of the ‘T’, leaving himself susceptible to a wide cross-court drive from the front flying past him. He probably played too many cross-courts as well, where we would see the very top players play a ‘straighter’ basic game than Jon chose to. But this is nitpicking, looking for reasons why he never got into the World Top 10.
When his PSA playing career ended, he had won a very impressive 15 tournaments from 20 finals, achieved a career high ranking of No.20 in 2010, reached 4 North American Finals in a row in 2009, won a Commonwealth Gold medal playing doubles with his wife Jaclyn at the 2010 Games in Delhi (as you can imagine, Kempy was awesome at doubles, especially when played with a 13″ tin!!) and to top it off – he finished his tour career in a really cool way – he won his last ever event, The Kent Open in Maidstone (this farewell to squash is probably only beaten when Jon Power retired by becoming World No.1 again). Kempy won The Kent Open two years running, in 2013 and 2014, prompting the club members to cleverly nickname the event “The Kemp Open” while also branding the show court “Kempy’s Corner”!
Jon decided to call time on his PSA career because he had accepted a role as the head coach for Ipswich Squash Club. After his popular time in Ipswich he moved to Qatar to work with Geoff Hunt and Stewart Boswell. What a threesome that is?! I don’t know Geoff but Bozza was (and of course still is) an absolute class act of a player and a person. I’m sure Jon played an important role and will have helped significantly in the rise of Qatari Abdulla Al-Tamimi, who last year reached a career-high ranking of No.17 in The World. Abdulla is a wonderful player to watch, with his relentless attacking shots and deception, which can only have been encouraged by Kempy. So many other coaches would have tried to turn Abdulla into a more “sensible” player, but I’m sure his rise must be significantly brought-about by Kempy embracing his style of play, so he can go an play his natural game with confidence.
Earlier this year, Jon moved to New Zealand to take on the role of Head National Performance Coach. This is a great move for Squash NZ. I know Kempy’s playing level is still extremely high, and his input as a coach will be invaluable. I can only imagine his feeding is second-to-none, so he provides a special, high-quality coaching package for his players that cannot be found in many other places around the globe. I wish him and the players he’ll be working with, all the best for the next few years.
There’s a few YouTube treats attached:
Jonathan Kemp HotShots. Him spanking loads of forehand cross-court nicks against The Colombian Cannonball, Miguel Rodriguez – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Eg2g927Nbc&ab_channel=SQUASHTV
And a particularly awkward interview in a 2009 England Squash Promo Video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5cH5cTYA7g&ab_channel=EnglandSquash