Squash and TV is a lingering issue for these amazing athletes
By HECTOR CAPPELLETTI – Squash Mad Guest Columnist
Squash Mad is delighted to welcome guest columnist Hector Cappelletti. Hector normally writes about cricket, but we are pleased to reproduce his column on his visit to St George’s Hill to watch the Channel VAS Championship.
Hector writes: For a sport to reach the highest stratosphere in the modern, media-driven world then one could argue that it must woo the capricious beast that is television. Whether the benefits are of a financial nature or greater exposure, or both, television offers a platform from which a sport can launch itself into the stratosphere occupied by well established equivalents. Failing to lure the fickle medium can leave a sport going round in circles. The formula for such a relationship is rarely simple and uncomplicated, though. Sports that appear telegenic at times fail to capture the imagination of the broadcaster at large. Throw in a dose of prejudice and ignorance along with a handful of incorrect assumptions regarding a particular sport and achieving progress can seem an almost Sisyphean task.
Few sports have endured such a struggle as Squash. In some respects the poor relation of the racquet sports world, Squash does not receive the coverage or the promotion of Badminton, let alone Tennis. Three consecutive bids to be included in the Olympic Games passed as other sports were favoured, the same reason for its exclusion uttered on each occasion: the difficulty for spectators to follow the action, particularly on television. The scenario all but represents a vicious circle: lack of television coverage as the play is not particularly appealing to television audiences affecting inclusion on world sport’s biggest stage.
In spite of such travails the sport continues on its merry way and slowly grows and progresses. Is Squash really as tricky to follow for the lay spectator though? Or is such a response merely a convenient excuse or a lazy preconception? Recent statistics have highlighted that there are somewhere between 350,000 and half a million Squash players in the United Kingdom, dictating that, from a participation perspective, it is more than a niche sport.
Spectating is very much a different kettle of fish to participating. Significant numbers in the latter do not necessarily translate into similar amounts for the former. Squash possesses a major advantage though courtesy of the small amount of space required to house a court. Thus, the World Tour hosts high profile events in Grand Central Station’s Vanderbilt Hall, on the roof of the Peninsula Hotel across the water from the Shanghai Bund, the Nantes Opera House and Canary Wharf’s East Wintergarden whilst the 2006 World Open took place in front of 5,000 spectators with the Pyramids at Giza providing a stunning background. (The regular tour made a return to the iconic venue ten years later)
Spectating in the United Kingdom offers plenty of opportunity for those intrigued to take a look. Aside from the aforementioned tournament at Canary Wharf there is also the British Open, the sport’s second most prestigious title after the World Open, and the Premier Squash League.
Also part of the world tour calendar are the Channel VAS Championships, held at the St George’s Hill club in south-west London. Now in its fourth year of existence, the tournament is afforded with Gold status on the World Tour ranking, thus attracting a fine selection of the sport’s best players. Professional Squash at the highest level is dominated by players from Egypt, a phenomenon that has emerged in the last two decades. The emergence of Egyptian players is largely attributed to two factors: the promotion and extra funding given to the sport by erstwhile President Hosni Mubarak during the 1990’s and the concentration of talent generated by the country’s top players largely remaining at home due to not being able to tour. Signs of the eventual emergence arrived during the 1999 World Open courtesy of Ahmed Barada reaching the final in Cairo. Barada lost to Peter Nicol but Amr Shabana’s success four years later proved the precursor to three further successes for Shabana along with triumphs for Ramy Ashour, Karim Abdel Gawad and Mohammad El Shorbagy. The Egyptian dominance of the sport is no better illustrated than by an examination of the world rankings: six of the world’s top ten in the current men’s hierarchy all hail from the North African country.
On this particular evening, featuring the quarter-finals of the Channel VAS tournament, three of the participants are Egyptian, including world number two Ali Farag and former world champion Karim Abdel Gawad. Most undoubtedly expected the opening match to feature current World Champion and world number one Mohamed El Shorbagy but the defending champion was dramatically defeated in the second round by Welshman Joel Makin.
Reward for the Pembrokeshire native is a quarter-final against sixth seed Diego Elias, one of the most promising players on the men’s circuit. Within moments of the players’ introductions, by tournament emcee Danny Lee, and the resultant warm-ups, both player and ball, have been completed an interesting little episode takes place. One player will point to the butt of their racket and then spin it on its head, allowing the not inexpensive piece of equipment to fall to the floor. The logo on the butt of the racket, and its position, appears to decide which player serves first. Thus, the decision as to whom will serve first is decided by such a basic method.
Continuing his stellar form from the previous round, Makin wins a tight, tetchy opening game that is dominated by extended, energy sapping rallies and a series of let calls. The Welshman then surges into an early 5-2 lead at the start of the second but is soon overpowered by an improving Elias who takes the game 11-7. Confidence boosted, Elias inches away from Makin in third game but remains perturbed at the Welshman’s perceived lack of moment as the match referee and the video referee are required to adjudicate on a number of occasions throughout the match. Nevertheless, Elias prevails, prompting a guttural cry of ‘Vamos!’ after one point whilst the Lima native aims several clenched fists toward the crowd en route to edging ahead. Makin refuses to yield and keeps hold of the Peruvian’s coat tails during the fourth game but Elias nevertheless has too much and ends the Welshman’s run in the tournament with a seventy-nine minute success.
The elongated nature of the Makin-Elias contest dictates that the second quarter-final, between Tarek Momen and New Zealander Paul Coll begins soon after. Coll likely possesses good memories of the court at St George’s Hill courtesy of his landmark tournament victory two years previous when the New Zealander emerged from two rounds of qualifying to defeat three seeded players, including Momen in the final, en route to claiming the title.
Within moments of the match beginning it is noticeable how the contest is played at a greater pace than the preceding equivalent with less contentious moments. Momen claims the opening game in a dozen minutes and moves through the gears in the second but Coll produces a number of quality winning shots to take the game into a tiebreak which the Egyptian claims after Coll dumps a backhand volley into the tin. Similarly noticeable are the different styles of play employed by the two performers, particularly Momen who plays a number of high quality boasts to change the direction of play. In contrast, Coll is vocally and visibly angry at himself for gifting his opponent easy points through unforced errors. The Greymouth native’s irritation is not relieved in the third game as further errors and beautiful play from Momen edge the Egyptian to victory despite a stunning cross court nick from Coll during the latter stages of the match.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of watching professional Squash involves the interaction between the two players involved. Unlike other racquet sports the dramatis personae in a Squash contest both play on the same court. Thus, both must negotiate each other in a manner that, on occasion, takes on an almost metronomic dance, gracefully moving into one corner and playing a shot before shimmying away to allow their opponent to play his / hers.
Suddenly the direction of play shifts dramatically to another section of the court but the delicate movements remain part of the play. Every so often one player is blocked, leading to both performers gazing through the glass at the back of the court in the direction of the referee who will judge whether a let is awarded or one of the players is penalised with the loss of the point. The former outcome is normally welcomed by both players, the latter some protestation and a dramatic reaction. The evening’s opening match between Joel Makin and Diego Elias features a number of such examples, including one decision which Joel Makin describes as poor.
Ensconced in the eponymous gated estate in Weybridge, St George’s Hill Lawn Tennis Club is a remarkable venue for the Channel VAS tournament. The main court possesses an intimate atmosphere, and those in attendance can comfortably hear any conversations between the two players and the referee. Unlike a number of sports where one can often seem detached from the play, one very much feels part of the contest at St George’s Hill to the point where one can marvel at the stunning movement and incredible reflexes of the players. The sense of being part of the play is emphasised by the very audible sound of a player’s racquet strings cut across the ball when a drop shot is employed.
At the heart of tonight’s operations is the club’s Squash professional Danny Lee. Formerly a high ranking player himself in the 1980’s, Lee now acts as the tournament emcee and, in his own inimitable, gregarious manner, provides entertaining player introductions before matches and lively interviews with the individual winners at the conclusion of each contest. Prior to the evening’s play Lee buzzes around the venue with much energy, proffering smiles and cheerful conversations with spectators and officials.
Lee’s latest offering is to introduce the players involved in the evening’s third match: Karim Abdel Gawad of Egypt and Saurav Ghosal of India. Ominously for the latter, Gawad, known to be a slow starter, is in imperious form during the first game en route to opening a 10-3 lead, one point claimed with a sublime backhand cross court nick. Ghosal stems the flow though and claims four consecutive points to threaten a comeback but Gawad closes out the game in ten minutes. Indeed, the former world champion appears to be rediscovering some of his very best form as he cruises to the second game in conceding just three points, a succession of brilliantly disguised drop shots too much for Ghosal.
Little changes in the third game as the Alexandria native roars into an early lead, one point provoking a wry smile from Ghosal in acknowledgement of a tour de force. There appears little that the world number eleven can do to stop Gawad’s march to victory but Ghosal claims a few late points to move within one of his opponent. Once again though, Gawad diffuses any danger and clinically closes out the contest, completing a quite stunning all-round performance that would likely have proved enough to beat any of Gawad’s peers.
Danny Lee is soon back on court interviewing the former world champion and then introducing the final two players of the evening: Ali Farag and Tom Richards. Understandably, there is big vocal support for the latter as Richards has been involved with the St George’s Hill club since the age of two. Much to the delight of the crowd, Richards claims the opening point of the contest but Farag is soon in his stride, continuing the Egyptian dominance on the night to win the first game in just seven minutes.
Richards responds well and keeps apace with the world number two during the early stages of the second game, much to the delight of those in attendance. Indeed, the Englishman arguably plays the shot of the night with a cross court double boast, prompting much raucous cheering, but Farag carries on regardless and wins the game 11-7. Richards again responds well but Farag again opens a sizeable lead and appears set to win comfortably. Uncharacteristic errors and excellent winners from the Englishman edge Richards to within a point but Farag proves clinical and closes out a straight games victory.
In the aftermath of an intriguing, entertaining evening one cannot help but ponder the lack of appeal that Squash seems to generate with broadcasters. Upon actually watching the sport live one quickly discovers that there are a number of factors that would surely render Squash ideal for television coverage: easy scoring, fast rallies, spectacular shots off of more than one wall, jaw dropping agility of the players, just a couple of main, fixed cameras required with a couple of roving equivalents for different angles, glass courts with almost unlimited options regarding colours that could be used and the intoxicating sound of the ball thwocking against the walls would, one imagines, be ideal for television coverage.
Perhaps one of Squash’s strengths could also prove one of its weaknesses though. Hosting tournaments in spectacular locations is undoubtedly a boon for the sport but the small size of both the court and the ball dictate that spectators need to be sat within the immediate vicinity of the court so as to readily see the action. The intimate nature of the sport dictates that venues such as the Vanderbilt Hall, Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco, the East Wintergarden or the Abu Tig Marina in El Gouna on the Red Sea are ideal hosts. Such a scenario potentially leaves the sport in a Catch 22 predicament though. Playing tournaments at interesting venues could be used a unique selling point for the sport but what happens if the sport outgrows these venues? Larger equivalents could potentially mean less iconic locations. But would larger venues suit the sport at large as giant, gargantuan stands could mean a poor view of the action for the spectators at the rear of such structures.
Regardless of any issues arising from logistics the lack of mainstream television coverage of Squash remains a perplexing conundrum. Many of the ingredients for a successful symbiosis appear to already be in place. The use of a white ball against a coloured glass background allows the viewer to easily follow the play. Cameras in the corners of the court and above the court provide a litany of differing angles from which a match can be experienced. Contests are generally fast paced and regularly completed in under an hour; a stark contrast to the highest levels of Tennis.
In an era dominated by seemingly short attention spans and a time poor society one is surprised that Squash’s fast paced dynamic has not proved to be manna from television heaven for broadcasters at large. Coverage is provided by Eurosport, via its internet streaming Player platform, or the excellent service provided by PSA TV.
But for Squash coverage to progress to the next level, and potential inclusion into the Olympic Games, one would imagine that coverage from mainstream broadcasters would be required. Breaking the vicious circle generated by the lack of coverage and general assumptions regarding the sport at large would appear to be one of Squash’s major challenges.
Pictures courtesy of Hector Cappelletti and PSA