When Malaysia’s Low Wee Wern steps on court at this year’s Malaysian Open Squash Championships, it will be her just her second match as a PSA World Tour player since the 2021 PSA World Championships some 16 months prior.
In the 494 days between her second round defeat to Olivia Clyne in Chicago and her upcoming battle in Bukit Jalil against talented wildcard and compatriot Chan Yiwen, Low has had to overcome devastating injuries that had some questioning whether the former World No.5 would make a return to the professional game.
The Penang-native, who had already faced multiple lengthy absences in her career after three separate knee surgeries, initially tried to play through the increasing levels of pain she was feeling at the end of the 2020-21 season. However, by the end of the season, it was obvious to her team that surgery was the only option if Low wanted to play competitively again.
After the 2020-21 season, the 2018 Malaysian Open champion underwent extensive reconstructive surgery in her right knee, with surgeons rebuilding her posterolateral corner and medial collateral ligament through six operations at the Fortius Clinic in London.
“It’s been tough to say the least,” Low says of her decision to have surgery and subsequent struggle to return. “I was used to playing with certain levels of pain but it got worse in my last few tournaments in 2021. It got to a point where surgery was my only option, but I really didn’t want to go under the knife for a fourth time.
“It was complicated surgery and, unlike with an anterior cruciate ligament [ACL] injury, there is no clear timeline of what I should be doing and when. Because of the [long-term] damage to my knee, my training has to be modified and there are certain things I will not be able to do again.”
The former Malaysia No.1 admits that after her third knee surgery in 2017 and the subsequent brutal recovery period, she told herself that she would rather hang up her racket than undergo a fourth. Yet, when faced with that exact choice four years later, Low ultimately decided she owed it not only to herself, but to everyone who had supported her to battle past the pain and frustration.
“I managed to get back to World No.24 and regain the Malaysia No.1 ranking after three surgeries, which is fairly commendable. But now I have reached a point in my career where it is no longer about me or my goals. I am coming back for the people who supported me and stood by me since I was young, even through all the darkest times.
“It is also to give hope. I want to be able to inspire a younger athlete out there who is currently dealing with an injury, showing them that it can be done and a comeback is possible with the right mindset.
“I am fortunate to have a strong support system; my mum, my sister, my coach Aaron who has been with me since I was 11, my physio Norbert, my sponsors and also Penang State for granting me access to the training facilities despite me being dropped from the Podium Program by the National Body three months after my surgery.”
Low admits that she doesn’t know what to expect from the upcoming Malaysian Open, which she won in 2018 after returning from ACL surgery on her left knee.
Although Low is accepting of her new career goals, the 32-year-old admits that she doesn’t know what to expect from herself in the Malaysian Open first round, with Low’s sole appearance this season an unexpected cameo in the first round of the MARIGOLD Singapore Squash Open, where she was a last-minute addition following an injury to Lisa Aitken.
Low says that part of the reason she targeted the Malaysian Open for her return was that she would benefit from a full support team.
Another factor, though, is the special memories she has of the event.
“I think my favourite memory has to be winning the Malaysian Open 2018 on my comeback after three surgeries, playing all the way from the qualifying round to win the title. It was surreal and something I will always remember.”
Although Low will never rule out a repeat of her heroics in 2018, she is also pragmatic about her chances this year.
“I think just being able to compete again and to be in the whole atmosphere. I miss that. I am not 100 percent pain free and I have accepted that. It is more about learning how to adapt and compete with what I can do and to see where it can take me.”
Whatever happens in the National Squash Centre in Bukit Jalil, the four-time Malaysian National champion denies the moment will be bittersweet. Instead, she will look back with nothing but positive memories:
“But I did not want to end my career because of surgery or because I was dropped out of the National Team. I want to be able to call it quits on my terms, on a positive note.”
Don’t let talk of looking back fondly deceive, though. Low’s time on the tour is far from over, with the Malaysian also set to play the Platinum-level Everbright Securities International Hong Kong Squash Open, which much like Low is making its own long-anticipated return.
“Hong Kong is fairly close to home and I enjoy competing there so I am looking forward to it, too. Fingers crossed, if the body is reacting well to competing again at a decent level, I do intend to return fully for possibly another year or two before calling it quits.
“Trust me, I’m not throwing in the towel just yet!”