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Friday, August 12, 2022

Exclusive Interview with Squash+ mastermind Lee Witham: “We need new courts, new club designs, and new ideas to rescue the game at club level”

Alan Thatcher
Alan Thatcherhttps://squashmad.com
Founder of World Squash Day, Squash Mad, the Kent Open and co-promoter of the Canary Wharf Classic. Launched the Squash 200 Partnership to build clubs of the future. Talks a bit.

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“With glass side walls players can feel the energy of other people playing alongside, whether on another squash court or maybe a padel court”
INTERVIEW by ALAN THATCHER (Squash Mad Editor)

Lee Witham has a deep, lifelong passion for squash. A former professional player and US College coach, Lee is now an innovative inventor, a lighting specialist and a court designer.

Over the next week we will be serialising Lee’s views on a variety of topics that affect squash. It will make fascinating reading. For now, let’s meet the man himself and hear about his amazing inventions that can breathe life back into squash and the whole rackets sports sector.

Like many people who have squash running through their veins, Lee is dismayed by the fall in playing numbers all over the world.

He said: “I have spent 30 years involved in squash and the recreational side of the game is in tatters.”

And, like any true inventor, he is busy coming up with solutions to stop the rot before it’s too late.

Having launched the Squash+ brand, Lee has designed a unique indoor-outdoor court with a canopy that is ready to bring to market this summer.

It is a revolutionary design and when I say it’s an all-glass court, it really is ALL GLASS. Even the floor.

Speaking from his home in Valencia, Lee told me: “The glass floor has a covering that feels very much like suede. We have been working with Spain’s biggest glass manufacturer at every stage of production and we are very pleased with how the floor behaves.

“We have been testing the prototype court in Spain for the past two or three months and we will soon be ready to finalise the design to take the court to market.

This rendering shows the colour palette Lee is using for new squash courts

“The court currently has white walls and a blue floor. We are planning to soften the colour to a light blue, like a Manchester City blue. The idea is to play with a dark blue ball that stands out clearly. We are working with a ball manufacturer on a new ball and plan to have the Squash+ logo on it.

“Having a big plus sign on the ball will hopefully help players and referees to spot any deviation at crucial moments like if the ball hits the tin. This is accentuated by the glass floor.”

Lee’s attention to detail is astonishing. And so is his knowledge of sports lighting.

He said: “Our sports lighting will operate at 1,500 frames per second to allow some amazing slow-motion video capture, assisting with coach feedback and refereeing. The lighting is currently being used on the pro tour and recently on show at the prestigious Tournament of Champions event in New York City.

“That way you get to see the extraordinary movements that squash players make but you need the correct lighting to capture the best quality footage. Sadly, many venues fail in that respect.”

Lee checks out his sports lighting used at the San Mames Stadium, home of Athletic Bilbao, one of the most famous football clubs in Spain

The outdoor court has a polycarbonate roof structure, which dramatically reduces UV rays by 99.9%, diffuses sunlight, and absorbs sound.

Lee adds: “Our ideal design is to have four courts with a bigger social area between them to keep the sound inside the structure.”

A perfectionist in everything he tackles, Lee is busy adjusting some of the colours to make his new court even more outstanding.

He added: “The floor markings will be white, and the lines will be different colours. The line on the tin will be navy blue, the service line will be red and the out of court line will be a yellow-gold.

“That makes it so much easier for coaches when talking to newcomers about the court lines and what they mean.

“With glass side walls players can feel the energy of other people playing alongside them, whether on another squash court or maybe a padel court. But there will be a gap between the courts so that players will not be distracted.”

Lee is forthcoming in his appraisal of where the game is going wrong. He said: “Apart from the PSA’s SquashTV channel the game is stale. “A year ago, I invited a tennis player to try squash and he loved it. In his words, ‘it’s an amazing game but played on an uninspiring court.’ The reason is simple: nothing has changed in 50 years.

“The ideal environment is a new style of club where all the racket sports are together, with squash alongside padel and pickleball.

“I want all the sports to be working together on courts that are outdoors or under canopies that allow a view inside and make the whole operation more visible to the general public.

“I was recently invited to watch the US Open Pickleball Championships and the whole site was so big that the car park was a mile away from the courts and you were ferried around in buggies.

“It had 2,800 entries and it had an amazing atmosphere. I was 54 last week and the buzz reminded me of a rock concert, with food trucks, vendors, a Margaritaville bar and fans with coolers full of refreshments!”

As the conversation returned to Lee’s new court design, he added: “We are working on plans to grade the texture of the floor to see how the ball bounces for players of different abilities.

“One plan for the future is a higher tin (almost completed) to help players avoid the injuries caused by lunging for low-bouncing balls at the front of the court. This is one of the main causes of injuries in squash and one of the reasons why people stop playing.”

Putting his inventor’s mind to a myriad of issues in racket sports, Lee added: “We will soon see people playing squash, racketball, padel and pickleball and it would make sense for some co-operation at this stage of development.

“That could even lead to having the same racket for some of the sports. There’s no reason why a junior squash racket could not be used for pickleball.

“Pickleball has an issue with noise and I would solve that in an instant by changing the bats from plastic paddles to have strings. Yes, strings. You would stop the noise and you would help to keep the stringing industry alive.

“We could also have interlocking polycarbonate panels for mobile courts that could be used for a variety of courts.

“As for the squash balls, I want to be the first teaching pro to actually design a proper squash ball. So far, the design has been done by non-players. That needs to change.”

Lee is passionate about the fact that quality lighting is essential for squash

Discussing the cost of the new court, Lee revealed: “It’s costing a bomb to get this far but we have had a huge response from our posts on social media.

“We have had enquiries from various parts of the world including Dubai, Australia, Singapore, Norway and Switzerland.

“If I can sell 10 a year I’ll be happy. I wanted to launch it at the Tournament of Champions in New York but the court wasn’t quite ready.”

As for the likely retail cost when the court is ready for sale, Lee said: “I want to make it as affordable as possible so I’m guessing the price will be around £100,000 to start with, but I would like to make it lower if we sell enough.

“I’m never going to make a million but I want this to be my legacy project for squash.

“I am not a greedy person and I want to get the cost of courts and rackets down.”

Lee and I became lockdown friends after being introduced by Canadian club owner Eduardo Alvarez, who has written some must-read articles for Squash Mad concerning the future of the game.

We have all been conversing since the height of the pandemic and it was a pleasure to meet Lee at the recent GillenMarkets Canary Wharf Classic.

I am looking forward to spending more time with him to hear his ideas for shaping the future of the rackets sports industry, and I am delighted to be serialising his views here on Squash Mad over the next week and a half.

Everyone in squash should listen to what Lee has to say, and it’s a partnership that underlines Squash Mad’s search for solutions. Lee delivers them in abundance.

PART ONE TOMORROW: SHINING A LIGHT ON THE PROBLEMS IN SQUASH

Pictures courtesy of  Lee Witham (Squash+)

 

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2 Comments

  1. Brilliant – I love the idea of a new colour court to look different and exciting – I love the idea of a canopy so potentially we can go outside or inside – its about making squash fun and taking it to the young people of the 21st century

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