By John Haughey
Madeline Perry will be in action in Hong Kong next week
We have another six weeks to go in 2008 but it will be hard to top Madeline Perry's achievement last month in reaching the World Squash Championship semi-finals as the Irish sporting performance of the year.
The Banbridge woman nearly died 14 months ago after being victim of an horrific assault in Milan.
Madeline was mugged after leaving a restaurant in the Italian city and was left with a severe brain injury plus a broken temporal bone in her skull.
Getting her health back was going to be no easy task and doctors told her frankly that she might never regain the concentration levels required for top-level sport.
But the 31-year-old is a fighter - as she has demonstrated countless times during her career.
Less than three months after the assault, Madeline was back winning her national title in Dublin and by last January, she had returned to the international circuit.
But while winning the Irish title was one thing, competing against the world's best players in the early months of this year was another.
"While I was playing OK, it was not top-10 level so it was a bit frustrating," says Madeline.
"It took really until the end of the summer - nine months, 10 months to get back to that sort of level.
"I had problems with concentration for months and I don't know whether it was a medical thing or just because something major had happened which made it hard for me to focus on playing squash, when I was thinking about so many other things.
"It was very frustrating because I had been in the top eight in the world and to have something like that happen and to have to work my way back up there again (was tough). I wasn't particularly happy with what had happened."
The timing of the assault also couldn't have been worse from a world-ranking point of view as it ruled Madeline out of the World Championship and the game's two other biggest tournaments.
"If it had happened in the summer, it might not have affected my ranking as much. Within a couple of months, I was out of the top 10.
"I won the Irish Nationals in the middle of December and I'd been training a bit a couple of weeks before that.
"I was back training and playing way quicker than was expected. But it was one thing training and playing in training but actual tournament level was a lot more difficult.
"There was nothing really obvious that I wasn't doing well. Every area of my game just wasn't up to the level."
Madeline endured frustrations on the world circuit in the first half of the year but by the late summer, her form was gradually returning.
"I got to the semi-finals in Singapore in August and for the few weeks before the World Open in Manchester, I was feeling pretty good.
"I was confident that I could do reasonably well but getting to the semi-finals was beyond my expectations."
Madeline went into championships seeded 14th and safely progressed past Egypt's Engy Kheirallah in the first round, after losing the opening game.
Nicol David ended Madeline Perry's run in the World Open
However, her return to form really gathered pace with a straight-games dismissal of sixth seed Shelley Kitchen in the second round.
That set up a quarter-final meeting with another New Zealander Jaclyn Hawkes, who had surprised 2004 world champion Vanessa Atkinson in the opening round.
Madeline's parents were among the a small but vocal contingent of Northern Irish people who saw her defeat Hawkes in a classic five-game match.
Hawkes comfortably won the opening two games and after Madeline had pinched the third, the New Zealander seemed certain of victory as she led 10-5 in the fourth.
"I was facing five match balls but won seven points in a row to take it into the fifth."
The final game was just as close before Madeline clinched it 11-9 to complete an astonishing comeback.
Reward was a semi-final meeting with the dominant defending champion Nicol David, who proved a bridge too far, although the Irish number one wasn't disgraced in losing 11-6 11-8 11-6.
After her World Open heroics, Madeline reached the last eight in Qatar which helped her ranking rise to her current mark of 11.
The Banbridge woman will be aiming to continue her climb up the ratings at next week's Hong Kong Open - although the draw has not been kind as she is seeded to meet world number two Natalie Grinham in the second round.
"The (Hong Kong) tournament is as big as the world championships, points and money wise and I'll be giving it a good go, despite the draw."
Looking further ahead, the 31-year-old sees herself continuing to play until the 2010 Commonwealth Games although she may take stock after the Delhi championships.
"I feel really good physically now. I could probably go on longer than probably I want to.
"After the Commonwealths, I might have to move on to other things. I'll be 33 although female squash players often mature quite late.
"Quite a lot of the girls in the top 10 after a bit older than me.
"I think it takes a few years to build up the strength that you need and the endurance."
To the shame of the Northern Ireland sports media, her achievement in reaching the last four in Manchester got very little coverage.
It's not something that especially bothers the county Down woman although she acknowledges that she would appreciate a few more mentions.
"It doesn't bug me although I guess it would be nice to get a bit more publicity for what I've achieved.
"I got quite a lot of press last year for my accident and then I got to the semi-finals of the world championships and there wasn't really anything."
But her voice betrays no sense of anger or frustration.
She had to deal with something a lot more serious a year ago.