Squash hopes to celebrate 2015 with a new-look world tour and a place in the Olympic Games
What a year it’s been for squash, and what an exciting time we look forward to in 2015. With the golden glow of the Commonwealth Games bathing the sport in an unprecedented feelgood factor, the IOC certainly took note of the success of the 2014 Games in Glasgow, leading to hopes of squash gaining a deserved place in the Olympics.
The IOC have confirmed plans to reorganise the sporting programme for future Games, wiping away the cap on the number of sports and replacing it with a maximum number of athletes and events.
Squash, which lost out in the voting for 2020 when wrestling was allowed to join the bidding process just months after being booted out of the Games, is among a number of sports hoping to be invited to join the Olympics.
Whether this will be in Japan in 2020 or in 2024 is unclear, but there is a growing mood of confidence that squash, at some time during 2015, will finally be ushered into the Games.
THE YEAR OF 2014 was a busy one for the game’s leading professionals, with two Women’s World Inividual Championships, plus the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, the Women’s World Team Championships and a Men’s World Championship that produced the comeback performance of the year from Ramy Ashour.
With the 2013 Women’s World Championship postponed, and a new team led by Tommy Berden taking over control of the WSA, Malaysia stepped in to rescue the event.
Massive crowds turned up in Penang hoping to see home favourite Nicol David add to her seven world titles in her home city. However, Egyptian teenager Nour El Sherbini produced a stunning victory to beat David in the semi-finals, and then lost a titanic tussle in the final to England’s Laura Massaro.
By the end of the year, however, the Malaysian had regained her title, beating Raneem El Welily in another drama-packed showdown, saving four match balls in the fourth game before dominating the fifth.
This time the home crowd in Cairo was cheering Raneem to the rafters, only for David to show she has still got what it takes at the highest level.
No wonder she was welcomed home by a noisy crowd at Penang Airport. Not many squash players can have enjoyed such a triumphant homecoming.
In hindsight, not many players are put under the intense media pressure that Nicol experiences in her home country, a stressful environment that may have contributed to her earlier demise in March.
There were no such stresses in Glasgow as Nicol entered the arena with a huge, beaming smile in response to the magnificent atmosphere generated by packed crowds at Scotstoun. She overpowered Laura Massaro in the final as she neared 100 consecutive months at the top of the WSA rankings.
The men’s singles in Glasgow produced a number of outstanding matches, with home hero Alan Clyne winning a marathon match against India’s Harinder Pal Sandhu, hitting back from 2-1 down to win 11-9 in the fifth after 116 minutes.
Clyne bowed out to Nick Matthew the next day, as both players celebrated birthdays on the same day. Indian number one Saurav Ghosal produced a stunning fightback from 2-0 down to sink New Zealand’s Campbell Grayson in another phenomenal battle.
Amazingly, Matthew had undergone a knee operation just five weeks before the Games but recovered quickly to not only commit to playing in the singles and doubles (for 11 consecutive days, as it turned out) , but also act as Team England flag bearer during a spectacular opening ceremony at Celtic Park.
In the other half of the draw, long-time rival James Willstrop matched Matthew’s imperious march towards the final, winning every match in straight games. When the two players entered the Scotstoun Arena to a tumultuous welcome on July 28, Willstrop was playing at his peak.
Unknown to many spectators, he was also carrying a serious hip injury which would necessitate surgery at some stage later in the year. Amazingly, these two wounded soldiers delivered a final of the highest quality, lasting 100 minutes.
Matthew later acknowledged that Willstrop had been playing some phenomenal squash and that he had had to resort to “caveman squash” to fight through the fifth game to clinch the gold medal and maintain his long winning run against his Yorkshire rival.
While writing this article, I heard Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal complain that his players were tired because of the heavy Christmas schedule and that sports science showed that athletes require at least 48 hours to recover from competition.
Try telling that to squash players.
The morning after their epic final, Matthew and Willstrop were back on court to play in the Commonwealth Games doubles competitions, with Matthew partnering Adrian Grant and Willstrop teaming up with Daryl Selby.
Matthew and Grant featured in the very last match of the whole Games competition, losing to Australians Cam Pilley and David Palmer in the men’s doubles final, while Willstrop and Selby took the bronze medal after beating Scotland’s home heroes Alan Clyne and Harry Leitch.
Leitch had also entered the Games with a serious injury. He had suffered two broken bones in his left foot during a freak collision in training but played through the pain barrier alongside the Scottish number one. Their battling performances were the embodiment of the Games from a Scottish perspective, with the crowds raising the roof at Scotstoun every day whenever a Scottish player entered the arena.
We had football-style chanting, Mexican waves, and more noise then I have heard at any squash event, anywhere in the world. Packed crowds filled the arena for every session, every day, for both singles and doubles.
With Clyne already established in the world top 30, younger players like Kevin Moran and Greg Lobban will not be far behind thanks to the efforts of national coach Roger Flynn.
What Scotland needs now is a major annual professional event to deliver a sustainable legacy. The Games proved that there is an appetite and an audience for top-class squash north of the border.
I have known that for years, having rescued the British Open in 1999 and taken it to Aberdeen, where a crowd of 1,600 turned out to cheer on Peter Nicol on home soil only for Scotland’s world champion to collapse at courtside, having contracted food poisoning.
But that’s another story. Fifteen years on, it is obvious that Glasgow and Edinburgh have the facilities to become major squash centres, with the North East cities of Aberdeen and Inverness also keen to be part of any developments.
One of the highlights of the Games also turned into one of the mysteries of the year. With Dipika Pallikal and Joshna Chinappa winning gold in the women’s doubles in Glasgow, and the men’s and women’s teams gaining first and second place in the Asian Games soon afterwards, India had high hopes of achieving their best finish in the Women’s World Team Championships at Niagara-on-the-Lake, a wonderful venue with a five-star hotel on-site.
However, Pallikal failed to check in, having stunned Indian squash first of all by refusing to play and claiming that she didn’t know anything about the tournament.
This, of course, was a smokescreen. Rumours abounded of a major disagreement between certain players but Pallikal has yet to reveal the real reasons for her withdrawal, a move that could reduce her national funding.
In contrast to Pallikal’s absence, men’s squash celebrated the return of Ramy Ashour at the World Championship in Qatar.
Ashour, an unpredictable genius, adored by fans the world over, stunned everyone by winning the title in his first tournament back after taking six months out to deal with a troublesome hamstring injury.
Once again he overcome Mohamed Elshorbagy in a dramatic final. The younger Egyptian, who had moved to number one in the world rankings after an impressive march through 2014, saved five match balls in the fifth game before Ramy claimed his third world title. Elshorbagy held match ball himself before Ashour came back to win it 14-12 after 90 minutes of sheer drama.
Let’s leave the last words to Ashour, who said: “I’m speechless. It’s an unbelievable feeling and I just can’t believe it. I have worked so hard both mentally and physically to get myself ready for this tournament – it doesn’t get any better than this.
“It was dramatic and it was brutal – it was like a fight. We were both trying to get inside the other’s game but nobody succeeded – we were both producing our best squash.
“In that last game we both had match balls and it was back and forth between us, we both wanted so badly to be World Champion and winning my third world title means so much to me – this is a very special moment.”
THE world professional squash scene will have a new look early in 2015 as the two world tour governing bodies, the PSA and WSA, complete their merger. I understand that a few contractual loose ends need to be tied up and, according to WSA chief Tommy Berden, the merger is likely to be completed some time soon after the Tournament of Champions in late January.
In racquetball, 2014 was again full of success for Mexico’s Paola Longoria, despite suffering her first defeat since May 2011.
After more than six years as world number one, Paola fell in the Final of the Stockton tournament in California, losing to American Rhonda Rajsich.
It was a hard-hitting defeat, with the result affecting Paola’s confidence. She admitted: “I was in shock. I knew that this could happen, but I was not prepared 100 per cent for it. I even began to think, what if I start to lose, lose and lose?”
However, she hit back in style to win three medals in the Central American and Caribbean Games in Veracruz, having been chosen, like England’s Nick Matthew, to be the team leader. She also gained revenge on Rajsich, winning the final of her own event in Mexico, the Paola Longoria Invitational Tournament.
With 2015 just a couple of days away, I am looking forward to another spectacular, sold-out Canary Wharf tournament in March, a new Kent Open champion in June following the retirement of 2014 and 2013 champion Jonathan Kemp, and, most of all, the biggest squash party ever as we celebrate squash’s entry into the Olympic Games.
Happy New Year, everyone.