Laura leads my lockdown recovery as the squash world waits to reopen
By ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Editor
What day is it? Where am I? If you are losing track of time during the coronavirus lockdown, join the club.
Right now, under lockdown, my domestic priorities are mowing the lawn every week, nurturing my rhubarb, chasing the squirrels off the bird feeders and strengthening the fences to stop the neighbouring cats getting into the garden when the blue tits fledge.
Despite being unable to set foot on a court, I am still heavily occupied on the squash front.
My partners and I in the Squash 200 Consultancy continue to liaise with clients as we design new clubs for the future. I am also busy planning World Squash Day and the Kent Open, and have the personal target of building up my fitness after a hip replacement in January.
I lie down on my exercise mat a couple of times a week with Laura Massaro, copying her excellent hip mobility routines on YouTube, although that downward dog movement at the end is a bit beyond me at the moment.
Sadly, the coronavirus lockdown meant that Laura had to miss her date at Buckingham Palace last week to collect her MBE from HM The Queen, who is on lockdown at Windsor Castle, keeping a safe distance from Prince Charles, who tested positive for the virus some weeks ago.
Fortunately for us, she (Laura, not the Queen) is doing a fantastic job on social media, keeping us entertained and helping everyone to maintain our fitness levels.
Clearly, we are all missing our regular fix of playing squash or racketball, the pain when you train, and the satisfaction of immersing yourself in a well-earned shower as the endorphins kick in afterwards.
Perhaps, most of all, you are missing the social side of the game, sharing a beer with your opponent and shooting the breeze with your mates at the bar as you plan your next one-day graded tournament or get a squad of party animals together for a trip to the Junkies weekend, the most popular mixed team gathering in Europe.
I was hoping to go over to Amsterdam this summer to try out my new hip (and play some squash). Yes, I’ll get the gag in first, thank you very much.
But, like everything else in the world of sport, those plans will have to remain on hold. In any case, I am not sure how the hip would stand up to a weekend dedicated to absolute hedonism with a bit of squash thrown in. Choosing to avoid alcohol to improve my fitness levels following my recent operation, I am clearly behind on my training for experiencing my first Junkies jaunt.
I have frequently been told that I resemble John Travolta but the Saturday Night Fever may have to wait. Those who watch Strictly will understand that my limping dance moves at the moment more closely resemble my former MP Anne Widdecombe than JT.
Right now, squash faces a myriad of challenges before clubs will be able to reopen or tournaments, professional or social, will be allowed back on the calendar.
We have decisions to make on several levels: reopening courts for club (and college) players, and relaunching the PSA World Tour for the professionals.
France, New Zealand and Australia appear to be leading the way in planning a gradual return to play. My colleague James Roberts tells me: “The French Fédération are working on a phased return plan from June 2, which is earmarked as the start of Phase 2 of the national déconfinement plan. Phase 1 starts on May 10 but only outdoor, non-team or contact sports are allowed. I am told the Federation plan to release details to clubs soon.”
New Zealand Squash meet today to discuss allowing their clubs to reopen some time between June and August. Squash Australia have announced that clubs in the Northern Territory will be the first to reopen, probably in June.
One Aussie friend emailed me this week and said: “You can’t catch coronavirus from someone who doesn’t have it.”
The PSA and WSF are monitoring the situation as the global death toll from the spread of coronavirus reaches 220,000.
At local level, national federations and regional bodies will have to adhere to guidelines from their own governments.
We are certainly receiving mixed messages from across the planet. While the New Zealand government is talking about ending the lockdown after their success in controlling the spread of the virus, Donald Trump is suggesting that drinking disinfectant may slow the spread of the virus in America, and here in the UK we still have volunteers knitting equipment for the medical profession.
Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnston returned to work on Monday after recovering from a serious bout of Covid-19. By Wednesday morning he was back in hospital in London as his girlfriend Carrie Symonds gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
We can safely assume that the subject of reopening squash clubs will not be top of his agenda for a while.
As the death toll in England rose to 26,000, British Airways announced plans to axe 12,000 staff and various MPs called for businesses to reopen to boost the economy. However, the government’s scientific advisers continued to stress that safe distancing recommendations must remain in place for several months.
I’m not sure how that ties in with Wetherspoons pub chain owner Tim Martin, a former squash club manager, hoping to reopen his budget boozers as soon as possible.
On a personal level, I am planning World Squash Day to go ahead on the published date in October (10/10/20) and hoping to confirm a date to rearrange the Colin Payne Kent Open, sponsored by Trident Machines, at Tunbridge Wells, possibly in September.
Decisions concerning health and hygiene will remain top of the agenda for everyone, as federations across the world discuss the prospect of reopening.
Articles by James Roberts, Rod Bannister and Richard Millman published here on Squash Mad in the past few days (with some interesting medical and scientific input from Dr Ferez Nallaseth and Mike Hegarty) suggest that similar safeguarding measures will have to be applied in different hemispheres.
Asking players to wear protective masks (currently in short supply at many UK hospitals and care homes) is one idea. Plans to wipe down surfaces and door handles after players emerge from a squash court may be possible at larger clubs and college facilities with salaried staff on hand to take charge of the situation. Expecting players to do so, unmonitored, might not be quite so successful.
Cleanliness and hygiene do not occur to those casual users of club and leisure centre courts who stick used chewing gum in the corners or invite friends in to play with unsuitable footwear that leaves the floors covered in ugly skid marks. And if you really want to talk about hygiene and squash, then check out the state of the kitchens in some volunteer-run clubs when adult males try to tidy up after a team match meal.
We will certainly have to rethink our approach to group training if safe-distancing protocols are to continue. Playing games like three-quarters, with half a dozen kids in a huddle behind either service box, waiting for their turn to join in, will need to be rethought.
To revive the PSA World Tour and Challenger Tour, promoters will have to abide by current restrictions applicable in their own countries. However, international travel may prove to be an issue and local legislation will apply to gatherings of spectators at sports and entertainment events.
Testing travellers at airports, and users of sports and entertainment facilities, will need to be a daily occurrence.
Players will find that their travel insurance will not cover them for any incidents caused by a global pandemic, and the poor old promoter might discover a sudden increase in the costs of event insurance.
Few events can afford to match the £1.5m spent each year by the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which hosts the Wimbledon championships, to guard against the effects of a global pandemic.
They made the decision to take out this level of insurance following the SARS outbreak of 2003. They have paid out more than £25m in fees since then but stand to recoup some £114m to cover some of this year’s losses, which include global media rights, sponsorship and ticket sales.
As for the Kent Open and World Squash Day, I am closely studying the current responses from all other sports and keeping in close contact with friends at the PSA, who are working from home and staying in touch with event promoters all over the world.
Sean Reuthe, the PSA Media Manager, told me: “Regarding COVID-19, we are having to wait for updates to guidelines and government rules around social distancing and what that would mean for clubs to open and people ultimately being able to enter a squash court together.
“Once those things become clearer we will be able to figure out what we can and can’t do in regards to getting the Tour under way again. We also have to bear in mind that countries will react differently to the UK and they may be in a position to return to squash quicker than we are.”
I wrote a piece last week saying that if the postponed Olympic Games are in danger of not going ahead in 2021 for a variety of reasons then that is a reasonable barometer for the rest of the sporting landscape and that international events could be on the back burner for a very long time.
Olympic athletes are unable to train, international travel firms like BA and Virgin are demanding government bail-outs, and spectators may be reluctant (or unable) to travel.
However, I received one response from a reader saying that my point was wrong because the German football league, the Bundesliga, was planning to start playing again within a few weeks.
First of all, the Bundesliga is a domestic competition, not an international one. Thirty seconds on Google would have revealed that the plans in Germany involved playing matches behind closed doors. To achieve even that, it would require players and club staff to be tested on a daily basis. German politicians are not happy about the social implications of wealthy footballers being repeatedly tested while millions of ordinary people are not.
The French, Dutch and Belgian Leagues have cancelled their seasons. Others will follow.
Premier League and Bundesliga clubs, of course, are terrified of losing their final TV payment of the season (which many will have already spent in anticipation of banking the loot). Completing the Champions League schedule is another major issue, this time a cross-border one.
FIFA’s own medical chief has suggested that we write off the current football season: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/52462233
As football waits to see if its competitions can continue, the tennis, golf and cricket seasons are pretty much a write-off already. All major events have been postponed or cancelled, including Wimbledon, the Open golf, and cricket’s much-vaunted and controversial Hundred competition.
Australia are due to send their cricketers over to England later in the summer but reports suggest that the Aussie players are reluctant to travel because of the stories they have heard about how the pandemic has been managed in the UK, which could emerge as the worst-affected country in Europe.
Some say it’s like going off to war in a hostile territory and leaving your loved ones behind.
They don’t want to risk it. But it’s not war. It’s sport. And there is no way that athletes should travel the world in fear of not coming home.
I am indebted to the team of Squash Mad writers mentioned above, discussing how the current lockdown is impacting the squash community in different parts of the world.
I am especially grateful to Scottish international Harry Leitch, who delivered an on-the-spot report from the front line, working as a doctor in two London hospitals.
Amanda Sobhy kept us informed and entertained as she described lockdown life for a professional, and Saurav Ghosal told reporter Geoff Bew how India is treating the battle against Covid-19 as being on a war footing.
Maria Toor Pakai wrote a column from her new home in Canada to inform us that she was used to a long period of personal isolation after receiving death threats from the Taliban growing up as a child in Pakistan.
Maria’s article coincided with her Foundation distributing aid parcels around Peshawar, where she is hoping to resume work on a new sports centre when the current restrictions are lifted.
We also wrote about how Jahangir Khan, the greatest squash legend of all, has also been helping the aid programme launched by the Shahid Afridi Foundation.
Across the channel, Jerome Elhaik added an article revealing how French stars Victor Crouin and Baptiste Masotti are able to carry on training. And James Roberts put his linguistic skills to good use to weigh in with another excellent article explaining how French clubs are coping with the current issues.
Prior to Rod Bannister’s superb review of the scene Down Under, Alexia Clonda chipped in with two timely pieces about how clubs dealt with life as the safety curtain finally came down on all sport.
English coach Zoe Shardlow revealed that she was running out of cash and could hardly afford her rent as the lockdown closed clubs and put paid to her lessons.
But Danny Lee and Alex Wall tried to put a smile on everyone’s faces as they wrote and recorded new songs designed to raise money for the NHS and raise spirits during these difficult times.
After Daryl Selby’s family revealed how they were coping with life without the game, Daryl announced that he and Nick Matthew would soon be launching a new chat show, recorded via interviews on Zoom.
I have attached a list of links to all those articles and many more at the foot of this column.
I am proud that Squash Mad provides a platform to share ideas and information across the globe, and, most importantly, keep us all connected.
Related articles published here on Squash Mad:
Back to the future with Richard Millman in America (plus some fascinating medical responses)
Plus: Laura Massaro and yoga