Look back in Angers –
3 decades of squash success
By James Roberts – Squash Mad Reporter
32 years ago in 1985, I walked through the doors of a shiny new squash club in Angers, a pretty and historic city in the Loire region of France and ‘capital’ of the Maine-et-Loire département – well worth visiting it has to be said if you are ever in the area. I was there as a student on a year out at Angers University at the Faculté de Lettres and as a relatively new but enthusiastic squash player, was delighted to learn that this new club was located within walking distance from my résidence universitaire.
Having caught the squash bug from an opportunity to play the game in the VIth form at school just a few years previous, I was thus able to carry on playing and enjoying the game during my year out in France. 3 decades on, I will later this month be going back to Angers for a reunion with some old French friends from the Fac with whom I have maintained contact.
I have also been delighted to learn that the squash club in question, Squash du Lac de Maine, has seemingly gone from strength to strength under the stewardship of its current joint managers, Nicolas Barbeau and Philippe Pouffer. Now boasting over 800 players, the club not only offers a mouth-watering series of high profile squash events, but also hosts a well-established PSA event – the Angers International Open – which take place for the fourth year in succession from 16th to 20th May.
Wonderful for me then that this tournament is taking place during my visit to Angers, so I will be taking the opportunity to not only have a nostalgic hit on the Lac de Maine courts, but also to take in the high-level squash action that will undoubtedly be on offer during the PSA event. I will also be chatting to Nicolas to learn more about how they have managed to transform Squash du Lac de Maine into the beacon of success it now represents for the squash scene in France, plus a few of the PSA players for their reflections on the tournament and the club.
Expect therefore a further article from me but in the meantime, by way of a preview of the Angers International Open, below is my translation of an article written by a professional French sports journalist, Jérôme Elhaïk, which appears on the French squash website Squashlibre.fr. You can access the original article here.
The events just keep on coming in Angers
The Angers International Open, now in its fourth year, starts on 16th May and has now more than ever established itself as part of the French and international schedule. This event reflects the intention of Nicolas Barbeau and the organisation committee to stage high profile events for their members. As usual, the crowd at Squash du Lac de Maine will be looking to get fired up, especially if a French player takes the title for the first time.
“To repeat an event is always easier than creating it from scratch”. These are the words of Nicolas Barbeau, joint manager of Squash du Lac de Maine and who, alongside his partner Philippe Pouffer, is the cornerstone of the organisation committee and of all the events staged at the club. Amongst these, there is of course the international open which will get underway again for the fourth time from 16th May. “There’s nothing really new compared to the previous tournament, there is most definitely a certain continuity” Nicolas points out. “The tournament is now well established in the international calendar. The objective of sustainability has therefore been achieved, particularly in terms of our sponsors. Money is the essential ingredient and all sponsors have renewed their commitment this time. This must mean that they are satisfied with the product that we offer to them. We have been hosting an intern – a masters student – who has been doing some good work and one of his missions will be to look for new sponsors for future events. Stability is also needed with the volunteers (Éric Desgages, Benoit Viel, Hervé Bonnamour, Patrice Rochard, Delphine Mardon, Théo Ripulles et Jessyca Boisseau amongst others). Is there a risk of fatigue? “Not at all as they know they are part of the most dynamic association in France” he affirms before bursting into laughter. Indeed when asked if he is himself at all worn down by this seemingly endless commitment, he exclaims “Me? The longer it continues, the more hungry I become! But seriously, I am satisfied because we have progressed quickly in establishing a series of exhibition matches, the PSA tournament and the regional opens. This list is missing a national tournament and perhaps a women’s.”
Barbeau talks about quick progression but the club was almost rocked to its foundations during an exhibition match on 31st March this year, played in an electric atmosphere. “The 2 players, Cameron Pilley and Ali Farag, were exceptional. It surpassed my expectations, especially due to Farag who played his part and really expressed himself. It was an amazing spectacle, thanks to some unbelievable passages of play and humorous moments. Proof of this was that a section of the crowd had been invited by the sponsors and knew nothing about squash, but stayed glued to their seats for an hour and a half.”
This event also reached well beyond the borders of Angers thanks to the superb video put together by Vincent Pépion. “ Compared to the Serme – Gohar women’s exhibition match, we wanted to improve the post event communications. Vincent is a young reporter who has done an exceptional job with this video: it represents a real ‘business card’ for the event. It is difficult to express an atmosphere, the drama etc with just words, and it was essential to gain the benefit of this visual support.”
The video was recently shared by the Professional Squash Association and is nearing 15,000 views. Encouraged by this success, Nicolas is already turning his mind to the future: “We can always do better. Each time an event comes to an end, the people who look after the lighting and sound submit 15 new ideas to me … We have a French World Champion and world number 1 and I have the seed of an idea to bring him to Angers. Anything is possible!”
As if that wasn’t enough, Nicolas will pass some of his time during the International Open wearing yet another hat: not just that of the organiser, speaker, reporter and referee but also … a player, because he will, as he did last year, participate in the qualification rounds. “Contrary to what people may think, I do not particularly enjoy this. Training to not be humiliated and then at the end of the day getting chopped by a youngster who is number 200 in the world, it’s not really my bag! However I do it for one particular reason: to show the people at the club, who for the most part are leisure players, the gap in level between the professionals and their club coach … Last year, I lost to the young English player James Peach who was then beaten by Victor Crouin, who himself was then eliminated in the first round by Robert Downer etc. People can therefore appreciate the many different levels of the game.”
As was the case in the previous tournaments, the line-up is very cosmopolitan: although the main draw is for the most part composed of French and British players, in the qualifications there will be Egyptians, a Greek, a Pakistani, an Iranian etc. The main attraction of the tournament will be the Spaniard Carlos Cornes, who is in the draw for the second year in a row.
“He had already left his imprint on the memory in 2015, Barbeau recounted last May, with an amazing match against his compatriot Alex Garbi. The crowd was again able to appreciate the beauty of his technical and fluid game. In addition to his qualities as a squash player, he is irreproachable off court. As soon as you ask anything of him, he is there with a smile.”
Cornes, who has just taken part in the European Team Championships, eliminated Fabien Verseille in the semi-final after an epic match, before losing to Angus Gillams. He was a semi-finalist in 2015, a finalist in 2016 so why not the winner this year? The Galician has also won 2 out of his last 3 titles on the French circuit, at Lorient and Chateau-Amoux. However, his pathway will be littered with traps at Lac de Maine this year, starting with the Scottish player Rory Stewart, whose recent results have been worth more than his world ranking of 255.
After that, he could face the Englishman Adam Auckland, the boyfriend of the no. 2 French player Coline Armaud, and who has recently distinguished himself by reaching the semis at Annecy. This could then set up a potential semi-final against Christophe André, who if he is 100% fit (he has taken part in very few tournaments so far in 2017 due to concerns about his back), will definitely be part of the group of players looking to win the tournament.
The number 2 seed is a player, who like Cornes, reached his best ranking late on in his career, at the age of 27. Englishman Adam Murrills has been on the tour since 2009 and won his first tournament last December, and 2 others since then. His half of the draw has a real blue, red and white feel to it: in the first round, he will face Edwin Clain, to whom Barbeau was “delighted to offer a wild card slot at the request of his coach Yann Ménégaux”.
Bronze medallist at the last French Junior Championship, this young player from l’US Créteil took his first steps on the international circuit a few days ago at Lorient. Murrills could then face Enzo Corigliano “who is doing the Pays de la Loire League proud, reveals its President Guillaue Lautier, as he has trained for several years at the Espoir Centre in Le Mans.”
The New Caledonian had also played one of his very first PSA tournaments in Angers in 2015 against a certain … Carlos Cornes. Amongst the other potential semi-finalists can be found the Pakistani Asim Khan, finalist in Niort in 2015, and the European Junior Champion, Victor Crouin.
Nicolas Barbeau won’t be the only Frenchman in the qualifications, since Johan Bouquet will also be present. “He will undoubtedly be the player to avoid, according to Barbeau, including in the main draw if he gets that far.” The man from Tolouse might have quit the international circuit in 2013, but he remains a player who is more than competitive, which his recent successes in national tournaments in Reunion and Escures bear witness to. Beaten in the first round of the qualifications in 2016, he will certainly be keen to do better this year.