RACKET GLADIATORS AIMING FOR OLYMPICS
By Nick Pitt, republished from The Sunday Times.
The World Series Finals may persuade the International Olympic Committee to grant squash a place at the Games in 2020.
SQUASH for the Olympics? The first reaction is one of surprise that it isn’t already a part of the summer Games, along with tennis, table tennis and badminton. After all, it surely embodies many of the most valued Olympic virtues: athleticism, skill, competitive intensity.
The power to astonish has been thrillingly on view at the Queen’s Club, west London, at the Atco World Series Finals as the world’s leading men and women fight for supremacy in their season finale. As well as all the high-skill wonders of the other racket sports at the top level, squash, with no net and a shared space for combat, has the extra dimension of gladiatorial contest. One against one and brutal, its closest cousin is boxing.
Twice the sport has applied for Olympic inclusion and twice it has been spurned. Now the campaign is on for the 2020 Games. And in earnest, for the present tournament is also an unashamed showcase for the Olympic application.
The sport’s administrators insist modern top-level squash is fully Olympic-friendly. All-glass courts enable better watching for greater numbers of spectators, and can be placed in spectacular locations, as shown by the tournaments played beside the pyramids in Egypt. Television “realisation” has been much improved since the governing body set up its own squash-dedicated TV production company, in the manner of Formula One.
And when the first question asked by the IOC’s programme commission after squash’s latest presentation in Lausanne was “can you guarantee that your top athletes will get involved?” the answer was easy. The Olympics would instantly become the pinnacle of the sport. As Nicol David, the seventime and reigning women’s world champion from Malaysia has put it: “I would trade all my world titles for one Olympic gold medal.” Squash’s advocates are savvy enough to leave unspoken the obvious point that existing Olympic sports such as tennis, and now golf, may not regard the Olympics as the summit; nor do they make the faux pas of criticising the other sports, including rock climbing, wakeboarding (a form of water skiing) and wushu (a martial art), which are applying for the one place available for 2020.
Still, there is plenty of hard sell. We are told that the game is played in 185 countries and that there are 50,000 squash courts in the world. And at Queen’s Club last week, three celebrity Olympians — Victoria Pendleton, Joanna Rowsell and Greg Searle — bowled up to support the cause.
But the best advertisement by far is the product itself. The women’s game is impressive, especially when David and Laura Massaro, the British No 1 who managed a rare win against David in the pool stage, are on court. The men’s game is something else, almost frightening to behold, in which every point can take a man to his limit.
Unfortunately, the best of them all, Ramy Ashour, the 25-year-old Egyptian who is world champion and world No 1, was absent from Queen’s Club, injured. Ashour is the possessor of such extravagant gifts that he can fairly be compared with golf’s young wonder, Rory McIlroy.
The verdict of James Willstrop, who was number one in the early part of last year, is that he is “undoubtedly one of the greatest sportsmen on the planet and certainly the most talented holding a racket”. That claim, which surely has Roger Federer in mind, seems exaggerated, until you see the best squash players in action. Rallies in excess of 100 strokes are not uncommon and involve miracles of retrieval as well as endurance of mind and body beyond comprehension. But there is also the sudden brilliance of a volley taken at full speed and stretch, sliced to die as a “nick” on the precise angle of wall and floor.
The top 10 in the men’s world rankings includes five Egyptians, three Englishmen, one Frenchman and a Spaniard. In the past, Pakistan, India and Australia have had great players, but today Egypt and England dominate. It is a little over-simplistic but not incorrect to characterise the top English players as labourers and fitness fanatics, and the Egyptians as the game’s artists.
For England, Willstrop and Nick Matthew follow in the tradition of Jonah Barrington, who made squash a war of attrition. Matthew was world No 1 during 2011, Willstrop during most of 2012. Willstrop recently had a book published about his life in the game; Matthew has one in preparation. Like many fellow men of Yorkshire, they are not best friends. But here’s the rub: Matthew has beaten Willstrop 14 times in a row, a winning run stretching back to 2007.
The high status of squash in Egypt requires explanation. The first courts were built by British army officers between the world wars. Locals took up the game and a great player, Amr Bey, soon emerged. He was unbeaten in the 1930s. With patronage from Fuad I, the first of the modern Egyptian kings, and later from president Hosni Mubarak, who had his own all-glass court, squash became and remains Egypt’s number two sport after football. Amr Shabana, the defending World Series champion, was the only Egyptian to progress from the pool stage to the semi-finals, but is a fine representative of his game and country.
A left-handed veteran at 33, he has won four world titles with a game based on finesse and placement. In common with the other leading Egyptian players, political events at home weigh heavily and he broadly supports the revolution.
“We are patient and forgiving but when there is too much injustice, they’d better watch out,” Shabana said. “Mubarak was actually one of our better rulers, but I am for change.” The 2020 Games will come too late for Shabana but he has enthusiasm for squash as an Olympic sport: “It combines everything: mental strength, agility, speed, fitness, endurance, flexibility and skill.”