"You do what has to be done," McKay says simply from time to time. Oh, that succinct Aussie play ethic. It's no wonder that Australia has turned into a nation of jocks. And jockettes: many of the country's top athletes—Margaret Court, Dawn Fraser, McKay—have been women.
McKay's background is a classic one for an Aussie athlete: large family, small town. Heather Blundell was born on July 31, 1941 in Queanbeyan, a town of about 5,000 in the sheep and cattle country outside the capital city of Canberra. She is the eighth of Frank and Dulcie Blundell's 11 children. Once one of New South Wales' best Rugby League fullbacks, Frank supported his family by working from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in a bakery. Until his retirement, he routinely spent most of his waking hours playing with his kids. "Six of us—my parents, two brothers, a sister and I—would play Sunday tennis tournaments at the club," says Heather. "If they wanted somebody to throw the ball in cricket, I'd do it. If they wanted somebody to kick it in soccer, I'd do that."
A sister, Kay, was a local tennis star. A brother, Kenny, was a standout in tennis and cricket. Three other sisters excelled in field hockey. But Heather was plainly the best. She took up tennis at age 10 and six years later was Queanbeyan's junior and senior women's champion, titles she would hold for three years. Though she stoutly denies it, her father and others who watched her play feel she could have been another Court. She learned field hockey at 13, and it was not long before the hustling left inner was the best player on her high school squad and a regular on the town team as well.
When McKay was 18 an auto dealer named Leo Casey added a couple of squash courts to his showroom as a publicity gimmick. Looking for a way to keep their legs in shape during the field-hockey off-season, McKay and some teammates began playing squash. McKay quickly ran out of competition and started practicing with men. As luck would have it—and there is a certain amount of luck, mixed with considerable opportunism in her story—Vin Napier, head of the Australian Squash Racquets Association, happened to see her in a tournament. Afterward, he suggested she play in the upcoming New South Wales Championships. "Those girls are too good for me," said McKay, a bashful teen-ager. "You might be surprised," said Napier. McKay reluctantly agreed. Indeed, she surprised herself—and her opponents—by winning the junior title.
She also reached the senior quarterfinals against Yvonne West, the eventual winner. McKay built up a big lead—2-1 in games and 8-2 in the fourth game. Because Australian squash matches are played best-of-5 nine-point games (in the U.S., the games go to 15), she had six match points to fritter away. And that's what she did. To overcome her considerable fatigue and to end the match as quickly as possible, she started trying placements she hadn't mastered and lost. It was the last time she would ever play unconservative squash.
Her strong showing earned her a place on the state team for the 1960 Australian nationals. It was quite a feat just to be there, especially since she had been playing squash for less than a year. Incredibly, she won the tournament. It mattered not that she was little more than a retriever, she got to everything. "To my mind, winning that tournament was the best thing she ever did," says Jean Walker, who played with McKay on one national and six state teams. "To be unknown and win a national tournament is unheard of."
An Australian team was going to Great Britain the following winter. According to Napier, had McKay been on it, she might have been rushed into international competition before she was physically or emotionally ready. But, by prior agreement, the Australian team was to consist exclusively of state champions. Because West was the New South Wales champion, McKay stayed home. "That was probably the best thing that ever happened to her," says Napier. "Before she went to Britain, she was able to settle down and learn something about the game."
McKay had some learning to do. She knew little about shotmaking but had a quick grasp for such things. She never had to be told anything twice. Napier handed her a technical manual he had written, and she all but memorized it. When Pakistan's celebrated Hashim Kahn, who was touring Australia, told her to go for more winners when she was in good position, she never forgot it.
Now committed to squash, McKay hung up her tennis racket and moved from Queanbeyan, where she had been working as clerk in a stationery store, to Sydney, where she supported herself as a receptionist at the Bellevue Hills Squash Club.
It was there that she met Brian McKay, a lathe operator by day, who taught squash at the club in the evenings. They were married four years later. Though Brian had been an outstanding rugby and cricket player and has always been able to hold his own against Heather on the squash court, he has never made a living in competitive sport.