subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now
Dewald van Niekerk, right, in action at the SA National Championships in Cape Town. Picture: Petri Oeschger
Dewald van Niekerk, right, in action at the SA National Championships in Cape Town. Picture: Petri Oeschger

The Olympic family will welcome the sporting code of squash to the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.

But here in SA, Gqeberha to be more specific, the Van Niekerk family needs no introduction to the sport — they live and breathe it!

Currently, Dewald van Niekerk is the country’s top-ranked player and has three national senior titles to his name. Sister Lizelle won the SA women’s title in 2021 after being a finalist three times prior to that, and middle sibling Rudi was top-ranked under-19 player in the country in his day.

In fact, all three of the teenagers topped the national age-group rankings in their final school year.

Twenty-six-year-old Dewald has been in SA Open action all week at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg, reaching the semifinals, and took time out to share his excitement about squash’s Olympic debut.

“It’s just incredible,” he said. “Squash has been fighting to be part of the Olympics for years and I’m so lucky to be in this era where I’m still young and strong enough to play a part.

“Obviously we don’t know the qualifying criteria yet, but the important thing is the opportunity is there and squash finally gets its chance. Tests have shown it’s one of the healthiest sports to play in terms of all-round physicality and skill and I’ve got no doubt it’s going to impress a lot of people and show the world that we deserve to be there.

“If I get chosen I hope I can be a big inspiration to the rest of the country, especially the younger generation. All my fellow pros I’ve spoken to are beyond excited.”

Van Niekerk started playing squash at the age of six, but it  helped that his parents ran the pro shop at the local Londt Park squash centre and all three kids were regulars on court.

Says proud sister Lizelle: “Dewald started at the perfect age and had so many opportunities to grow his game by training and playing and learning from the country’s best.

“His basic game has always been great, but now it’s outstanding. His fitness is really next level, it just seems like he never gets tired — maybe it’s his long legs,” she says with a laugh.

“The last two years his game has grown tremendously, he has more variation, volleying more, and his drop shots are so much better. All round his game has just improved so much. 

“Even though I’m older, Dewald is such an inspiration and someone I look up to … he makes me so proud every time he sets his foot on court — actually not only on court, but everything he does. He’s a beautiful Christian human being with a lot more success and trophies to come.”

Growing up, one of his local squash heroes was Stephen Coppinger, who represented SA at the World Games in Taiwan in 2009 and went on to get as high as 14th in the world rankings.

After he matriculated from Hoërskool Framesby, Van Niekerk headed to North West University where he graduated with a degree in human movement sciences and psychology and also took a postgraduate diploma in teaching.

Then another of his early squash heroes also played a big part in his career taking an upturn. “I met Nick Matthew [three-times world champ], who was giving a clinic in Johannesburg when one of the local players dropped out and I took his place.

“A while later he [Matthew] mentioned on social media that it would be nice for myself and a few SA players to come to the academy he ran in Sheffield, England. I spent a few months there and played four international tournaments.

“Here in SA our training methods are good and we have great coaches, but in Europe it’s just a whole different level as there are so many players one can learn something new from and there are also so many more top-level tournaments.”

Van Niekerk is currently ranked 118th in the world. “My highest ranking is 102 and I’m super close to breaking into the top 100, hopefully by the end of the year.”

He says the current state of the local game is healthy. “It’s getting stronger and there are some really good youngsters coming through at all levels. Also, look at Alex Fuller, she’s ranked 38th while I’m working my way up. I’m doing my best to build my game and hopefully inspiring others that everything is possible.”

As is the case with so many of the country’s smaller sports, success wouldn’t be possible without outside backing and support, and Van Niekerk is eternally grateful to the people who help keep his dream alive.

“I have a racket and clothing sponsorship from Tecnifibre and then I’m on New Zealander Wayne Taylor Human Performance’s books [he’s got top athletes from so many sports]. Then Squashrush club in Mpumalanga always help where they can and my main sponsor is Marko Himmel from Powerline Africa in Namibia. I’m constantly thanking him for his backing. And of course my national federation, Squash SA, also help me wherever they can and I try and give back to them by performing at my best.”

To stay at the top of his game takes lots of hard work.

“I have between seven and nine training sessions per week and it varies constantly between mobility sessions, one-on-one sessions, group training, match practice, gym work. No day is really the same,” he says. “If your body is strong it helps your mind; if your mind is strong you can push your body that much more. It’s important to have balance and eat well, sleep well, and also look after your mental health … once everything clicks, everything improves quickly!”

Being a pro and travelling the country, the continent and the world leaves little time for the everyday Dewald.

“I’m probably pretty boring away from squash … but I love playing golf [a lot of squash players do] when I get the chance. If it  wasn’t for squash I’d play cricket, that’s my other love.

“Padel is also lovely. Actually,  I just enjoy being active, whether it’s fishing or hunting or hiking. I just have to make time to do other stuff.”

But he has some interesting dietary dislikes. “I really love my food, but the weird thing is that I can’t stand the texture of mushrooms. But my pet hate is olives … I honestly think they’re the most disgusting things in the world.”

Come Los Angeles though and he’d better not dislike seafood because when it comes to the 2028 Olympics, the world is going to be his oyster!

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.