Sporting life

Will squash ever get its moment?
January 25, 2012
Britain takes on Australia in the women’s semifinals, 2010 Commonwealth Games; far left, Laura Massaro, the British number two

For sports with Olympic status, London 2012 is the golden ticket. Now is the time to increase profile, participation and commercial partnerships. A medal or notable contender, even a memorable cock-up (no one forgets Eddie the Eagle) may establish a sport in the public mind for years to come.

Spare a thought, then, for squash. After failing to join the Olympic family in each of the last two bidding rounds, the game will remain untouched by the 2012 stardust.

“It’s really disappointing not to be part of the countdown,” says Laura Massaro, national women’s champion. She is also the US Open Champion—this is a sport we’re actually good at. England has two players in both the men’s and women’s top five world rankings: our lost Olympic medallists.

According to Sport England, more than 500,000 people play squash each month. Those who do play it love it, and as with all minority sports, they believe that given a chance everyone else would love squash too. This is one reason why Olympic exposure has such value, but to be a draw for spectators, a sport must also be loved by those who rarely or never play.

Nick Rider, chief executive of England Squash and Racketball, accepts that squash has been fighting the same battle ever since the rise of gym membership, which offers an alternative indoor space where fitness fanatics can go to sweat. “The 1970s squash boom was created because it was pretty much the only show in town, and perhaps in the 1980s and 1990s the sport failed to consolidate its position.”

That isn’t for lack of champions. In 2010 the English and world number one Nick Matthew won the World Open, the sport’s biggest prize. Yet his victory is unlikely to increase participation. The game of squash is at once too hard and too simple. Beginners struggle to make the ball bounce high enough, making each rally a huge effort, and at the entry level there’s no such thing as a gentle set of squash. Go gently, and you won’t get there at all.

For elite players, the sport becomes predictable—the four walls and small floor area cut down options. The game becomes attritional: the longest competitive rally, between Jahangir Khan and Gamal Awad in 1983, lasted seven minutes.

It may be a great workout, but that doesn’t make squash great to watch. For two decades the governing body has been tinkering with the rules, looking for a winning formula. The scoring system has been made more direct. The serving has been modified, as has the height of the “tin” at the front of the court, to make points shorter. Professional players now use a white ball to increase its visibility. Yet these superficial changes leave the essential nature of the sport untouched: it’s a decent game to play but a dull one to watch.

Glass show courts have gone some way to opening up the closed box of the court to spectators, and the Professional Squash Association is investing heavily in television production. New broadcast technologies and unusual camera angles can enhance the experience for viewers. As Laura Massaro says, “it’s great to see the faces that players make at the front wall.”

A glass show court also has the advantage of being portable, and matches have been staged beside the Giza pyramids and in the middle of New York’s Grand Central Station. The ambition to attract a new audience is admirable. Unfortunately, a game of squash inside a large glass box can look like a disturbing science experiment.

The effort to spread the faith goes on. The World Squash Federation has opened an office in Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee is based, in yet another bid for inclusion in the next Games. The average professional rally, according to the US website, is down to 15 seconds, and elite British players continue to win, justifying the financial contribution made by Sport England’s World Class Performance Programme.

TV companies may be lured by emerging markets—there are four Egyptians in the men’s top ten and leading women players from Malaysia, Hong Kong and India. Squash may be able to sell itself as a “red button” sport—not for everyone but there if you want it.

In the 1990s, squash couldn’t find a sponsor for its National League; those days are over. From 2013, the British Open will be the flagship event at the new Sports Village in Hull, planned by Egyptian-born entrepreneur Assem Allam. No London 2012, then, but Hull 2013. Every renaissance has to start somewhere.