Back to the Future … version française
By James Roberts – Squash Mad Reporter
A nostalgic trip back to Angers, France, provided Squashmad.com reporter James Roberts with a ‘Back to the Future’ style experience in more ways than one as he took the opportunity to visit many old stomping grounds, including the squash club where he played during his time there over 30 years ago in 1985-1986. Here, he sets his imaginary DeLorean to propel him back to October 1985 to relive a bit of his squash past, whilst taking a glimpse at the French squash scene in 2017 and discovering what the future might hold for squash in France …
October 1985 is a time period embedded in cinematic history as the central point around which the adventures of Marty McFly and his fellow time-traveller Emmet ‘Doc’ Brown revolve in the famous Back to the Future film trilogy. However, for me October 1985 was the time I arrived in the city of Angers in the French Loire valley, where I had come to study for my third year out of a 4 year modern languages degree course. I subsequently discovered that the city did indeed possess a squash club so I could continue playing the sport I had come to love just a couple of years hence.
Fast forward to 19th May 2017 and I was back in Angers to meet up with some old French friends over the weekend, but had arrived a day early on the Friday giving me the opportunity to revisit Squash du Lac de Maine for the first time since 1986. As I took my first glimpse of the outside of the club for 31 years, it did feel a bit like I had just turned up from October 1985 in my DeLorean wearing a red 80s bodywarmer, rather than having just stepped off the bus wearing my new red Squashaholics hoodie.
From the outside, the club still looked very familiar, with its wood construction and show court grandstand cantilever protrusion providing the dominant architectural feature. Back in 1985, the club had barely been open for a year and was like nothing I had ever seen before. All of my squash up to this point had been played on cold, traditional enclosed courts in municipal leisure centres, reached through a labyrinth of claustrophobic corridors with dark staircases leading to dimly-lit, narrow viewing balconies from where you could watch the action below.
Squash du Lac de Maine on the other hand had obviously been designed with the experience of its members in mind, starting with its open plan reception and bar area overlooking the then 3 glass back courts, since added to with the construction of 2 further courts which seamlessly blend into the fabric of the original building. The other thing that struck me at the time and is still impressive today is the amount of natural light coming into the building from its large windows. The also serves to provide a natural warmth to the club both in terms of actual court temperature and its social atmosphere, which is also enhanced by its all timber construction and high, sloping ceilings.
Back in October 1985, I arrived to play during the daytime with a fellow British student and I remember that there was not too much activity happening, meaning we were able to pick our court to play on. Fast forward to the present day and the place is a hive of activity when I arrive around lunchtime – sure there is the PSA Angers International Open taking place during the week that I am there, but every court was in use by its members. A female member is receiving a squash lesson from one of the club coaches and co-owner Philippe Pouffer, who eventually reveals to me that he was giving lessons here back in 1985 too so I may well have seen him back then. The other courts were all echoing to the sounds of members enjoying a Friday lunchtime battle, possibly taking out the frustrations of the working week they had just endured.
I am warmly greeted by a familiar face in the form of the other club coach and co-owner, Nicolas Barbeau, as we had been connected on Facebook for some time. Nicolas was busy serving beers to thirsty members after their exertions on court but was also constantly up and down the stairs to his office which overlooks the bar, preparing for his role as MC and referee for the PSA semi-finals taking place later that evening and which I was going to have the privilege of watching. He even found time during the afternoon to grab a quick hit with Théo Ripulles, one of the best players at the club, who like Nicolas, had chanced his arm in the qualifying rounds of the PSA tournament.
The plan was for me to interview Nicolas to find out more about the club, how he and his co-owner Philippe have built the success seen today, particularly in terms of the PSA tournament and fantastic range of other impressive events that they serve up to the enthusiastic squash public in Angers. Nicolas also arranges for me to speak to a couple of the PSA semi-finalists, as well of course to have a nostalgic hit on the Lac de Maine courts with a couple of the regular players. Well, it would be rude to turn up at a squash club and not have a hit, even if you have not brought your racket!
So, club hire racket eagerly in hand, my first opponent is one of the club’s promising juniors, 14 year old Léo. The first thing I note is that the knock up includes not just the usual routines of a few shots to yourself down each side before hitting it back to your opponent, but also a couple of actual practice rallies before the match proper begins. The same knock up routine ensues with my adult opponent afterwards. Is this a French thing I am left wondering, or just something that happens in this club? I forget to quiz Nicolas on this point later!
An enjoyable match ensues and although I win 3-0, I know that I have been pushed all the way and that our squash games are only heading in opposite directions due to my inevitable decline as my ageing body slows me down, whereas Léo’s eager enthusiasm for the game and strengthening physique mean that his best days on court are yet to come.
My next opponent is adult member Tristan and I am told to expect a much harder game as he is a ‘very useful player’. Not only that, it turns out he is probably at least 20 years my junior! By this stage of the day, the earlier showers have given way to some nice afternoon sunshine which pierces through the building warming up the courts, so our game is played at a very fast pace with a very bouncy ball. Although I just manage to take the first game, Tristan gradually starts to work out my game and also make his superior fitness count. 3-1 to Tristan and club and French pride is duly restored!
A quick shower and change, then fortunately Adam Murrills arrives to get changed after his final practice session before tonight’s semi-final v Scottish player Rory Stewart. We arrange to meet in the bar area for a quick interview, which I record on my mobile. Once this is completed, one of the 2 French semi-finalists Christophe Andre arrives for practice, so I grab the opportunity to chalk off the second player interview, this time conducted in French as he does not speak any English. My sometimes rusty French linguistic skills are certainly put to the full test over this weekend, as my translation skills will now be as I have to put it all into English! The player interviews are very interesting and in many ways highly contrasting given the different experiences of these 2 players, but will form the basis of a further article to come very soon.
Nicolas then leads me to the quieter surroundings of the show court seating to conduct the interview with him – or so we think as Victor Crouin and Rory Stewart then arrive to conduct a practice hit with each other! Thankfully they were good enough to transfer to the neighbouring court so my recording was not punctuated with that familiar crack of the small black ball crisply hit against the plaster. The full interview is transcribed below.
There is the chance for a quick beer at the bar before the PSA Angers International Open semi-finals get underway at 7pm. A large and enthusiastic crowd gathers to completely fill the seating behind the glass back wall of the show court, showing how well the members support the events that Nicolas and Philippe put on for their enjoyment. There is a palpable atmosphere of expectation, particularly as the 2 French hopefuls have thus far shown good form in their routes to the semis, although they now had to face each other. This did however guarantee a French finalist, and ensured that the hopes of seeing a first French winner of this tournament were kept alive in this its 4th edition.
As it turned out, both semi-finals were pretty much one sided affairs, with Adam Murrills easily overcoming Scot Rory Stewart 3-0 in a ‘Battle of Britain’ encounter. The all French encounter saw recently crowned European Junior Champion Victor Crouin impressively notch the same scoreline against a somewhat jaded looking and error prone Christophe André.
This bought to a close a fantastic trip back to my squash past, but having spoken to Nicolas about the continuing plans for his club and having watched rising star Victor Crouin impressively progress to the final, I did wonder whether by going back to the past I had also glimpsed a bit of the future for the game of squash in France. Squash du Lac de Maine shows that there is perhaps a bright future for squash in France as a popular leisure sport, whilst Victor demonstrates that the future of the French game at elite competition level is also very strong. Indeed, the following evening, he went on to defeat number 1 seed Adam Murrills in a memorable final (which I was unfortunately unable to witness due to my other plans), coming back from 0-2 and match ball down to win in 5 and thereby earn his first PSA title. This makes him the youngest ever French winner of a PSA title. Perhaps the PSA Angers International Open 2017 at Squash du Lac de Maine had just seen the birth of a future world no. 1 and the next Gregory Gaultier … time will tell. Now where did I park my DeLorean …?
Interview with Nicolas Barbeau, club coach and co-owner, Squash du Lac de Maine:
Tell me about the history of the club, how it came into being?
The club was founded 33 years ago. It was designed around a proper central court with extensive seating behind. Squash in France like in the UK was very popular in the 1980s with lots of people playing and the public was coming to watch tournaments. However it declined from there. 4 years ago I came here to work with Philippe Pouffer, my business partner and who was in the top 15 in France and who is also one of the most experienced squash coaches in France. No major activities or competitions were taking place at the club at the time. Our objective was to change this.
Tell me about the development of squash in France since the 80s boom.
Since the early 90s, the number of people playing competitive squash, particularly amongst women, has declined rapidly. There are still quite a few people playing squash in France today, but it is considered largely as a leisure activity rather than a competitive sport. The lack of Olympic inclusion and media attention makes things more difficult, but as a squash club owner, I still find that there is a good level of leisure participation in France. People really enjoy playing and the game is on the up.
Who owns the club and how does membership work? Do you have court fees?
Philippe and I are co-owners. We have over 800 players who visit our courts – not all are on a regular basis but we do benefit from over 300 regulars. 95% of people play on a pay per play basis – only around 10 players pay a membership fee, these being the most regular players who play many times during the course of the week.
How did you go about transforming the club? What were the main things you did to raise its profile and increase the number of people playing squash?
There are 2 main things – the first is the PSA event we started 4 years ago, which is now running smoothly as the sponsors return year after year. It is always difficult starting a PSA tournament, but once you have the sponsors in place and do a good initial job, it is easier to repeat the event. Now we also organise exhibition events featuring top PSA men and women players which is giving the club a very positive image in the local area, meaning that if someone wants to play squash in Angers, they tend to think of Squash du Lac de Maine first.
Is there another club in Angers?
Yes there is a new one, built only 2 years ago. Now we are not on our own, so we have to work even harder to retain members and attract new ones. Also Philippe and I realise that running a club is not just a job, but it also has to be a passion, so when people come to the club, they come to realise that we have that passion – we talk squash, we eat squash, we sleep squash, we breathe squash!
Do you provide a lot of coaching to your members?
Absolutely. Each of us provides on average 2-3 hours of lessons per day to members. That is very good for our members as it improves their levels of play. It is often difficult for us, as we are not getting any younger so it is physically demanding, especially when the courts are colder, but it is good for our business because if our members play better, they enjoy the game more, want to play against higher ranked players and will come more often.
And of course, you yourself are also playing in a lot of regional and national opens, as well as Masters tournaments. What keeps you motivated to do this as well as run the club?
It is important for me as I like to see what is going on in the squash world outside of the club, as well as to have the opportunity to meet a lot of different people. I am still relatively fit and will continue with this as long as I am able, not injured and enjoy playing as much as I do.
Do you have extensive junior programmes at the club?
It has been more difficult in terms of the juniors at this club. I did start a Squash School at the club when I came here and we now have around 10-15 regular kids for this, but I acknowledge that this is not enough and we have to improve the junior side of the club for sure.
You also have a series of regular social events. Tell me a bit about this.
This club has a lot of regular players, some of whom have been playing here for more than 15-20 years. It is like a big family for many members. Each time we run an event at the club, like an internal competition, it always ends with a social meal, either at the club or in a local restaurant in Angers. A lot of people sometimes even come here just for the social side, not even to play squash, to drink a beer or two at our bar! The social side of the club is indeed very important.
I also note that you have run quite a lot of successful women only events. Is this due to a similar initiative to what we have in England with the #squashgirlscan campaign?
In terms of the women’s game, the French Federation know there is a crisis, particularly with the competitions, but also in terms of women’s participation generally. The Federation knows there is a problem but most of the work to attract women is undertaken under the initiative of the clubs themselves, including us here.
Does the club raise much in the way of revenues away from the actual selling of court time, for example from bar sales, merchandise and sponsorship?
I have worked at a lot of clubs, but we are fortunate at this club to benefit from a lot of regular sponsorship: for the courts, for the PSA events and the exhibition matches. It is mostly club members with business interests who want to help make our dreams possible. Our club shop is quite small but we sell a reasonable amount of merchandise. It is very difficult due to the internet meaning people can easily compare prices and this means we have to remain price competitive. Our beers however remain very popular! When the social side is good, the beers will always flow!
Can you tell me how you came to organise the PSA event?
I have been a referee for 15 years so I know how PSA events are run and I know the actual organisation of the event is not the main challenge. The main challenge lies in attracting sponsors to provide the prize money. So long as you can attract a decent range of PSA players from abroad, then you can convince the sponsors to give some money. The tough thing was to get the initial sponsors in for the 1st year. Once you have this in place, it is easier to repeat the event the following year and so it has proved.
What are your hopes for the future development of the PSA tournament? Do you want to attract higher ranked players in the future?
We actually increased the event to a 10K in the second year and did attract some higher ranked players as a result, but unfortunately there were only a few people that were aware that the level had increased. Last year we dropped back down to a 5K but still witnessed some unbelievable matches, as good as when it was a 10K. So rather than increase the prize money, we have concentrated on making the event a better experience for the players and for the people who come to watch. Our members are very enthusiastic and create a great atmosphere. Hopefully the fact that a French player will reach the final and may win it will mean that the atmosphere will get even better as we head towards the finals night.
Does the local media support the tournament?
Yes our local TV Station Angers Télé usually comes along and conducts interviews, as does our most popular regional newspaper Courier de l’Ouest. National TV station France 3 has also come along to do a feature in the past.
How have you manged to attract such high calibre players for your fantastic exhibition events?
One day I was talking to a club member saying that I was dreaming about bringing top 10 players to the club to play exhibition matches. By the end of the conversation he was saying let me know the cost as I would put my name to such an event. So I started to research it, find out what it would cost to attract top 10 players and told him what the budget would be. Within a week, he said he would back it. He is just an ordinary club member but runs a big company and is passionate about the game.
What do the pro players think of the club? Did they enjoy playing here?
The atmosphere for the exhibitions was absolutely amazing and since the crowd was so enthusiastic, the players gave 150% on court doing amazing stuff on court and keeping the crowd entertained. I have seen a lot of exhibition matches, but our latest one (featuring Cameron Pilley and Ali Farag) was one of the best I have ever witnessed.
Do you have any exciting future events in the pipeline?
Of course, but I don’t want to give away any details just yet! I am of course hopeful that our World Champion and World No. 1 Grégory Gaultier will come one day for sure. It is obvious that we have to try to get him to play here!
What are your future plans for the development of the club? Where do you see the club going in the future?
I have to be careful, as we are reliant on a small group of willing volunteers within the club to make these events happen and it is a lot of work for them. I don’t want to do too many things – 2 big exhibition events plus the PSA tournament is already a lot of work, but I would like to add a national tournament, perhaps a women’s, then it would be just perfect. If we succeed in doing these 3 things on a yearly basis, that would be just amazing.
If your club is interested, maybe one day we could organise something between my club Market Harborough and yours, perhaps raise teams of players to undertake reciprocal visits?
Yes I did this with one of my former clubs and it worked very well. Always very keen on these sort of initiatives. Let’s do it!