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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Geoff Hunt and Heather McKay launched the Aussie squash boom, and it’s time for the game to bounce back Down Under

Andy Whipphttp://www.awsomesports.co.uk
Ex-professional player, top level coach for 17 years and owner of AWsome Sports squash clothing. Andy was the regular on-court coach to world champion and world No.1 Laura Massaro, day-to day coach to world No.4 Stewart Boswell and Commonwealth bronze medallist Nafiizwan Adnan.

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By ANDY WHIPP – Squash Mad Columnist

While writing last week’s column about international coaches, I mentioned legendary names like Rodney Martin, David Palmer, Stewart Boswell and Anthony Ricketts – so I naturally decided to research why Australia is no longer a powerhouse in squash.

Here’s a super-quick history lesson: From 1960, Australian squash players were collecting major trophy after major trophy for more than 40 years!

Currently, and disturbingly, there is not a single Australian male in the world top 100. Joseph White is their top-ranked male at 133 in the PSA rankings. Donna Lobban is the highest ranked female player at No.23 in the world.

It’s a far cry from an astonishing era when Heather McKay became the greatest squash player of all time in terms of results. She did not lose a single squash match between 1963 and 1981, which is absolutely bonkers! She won 16 consecutive British Open titles and is considered by many as Australia’s greatest ever professional sports star.

Geoff Hunt was the world No.1 player from 1975 to 1980, winning four World Open Titles in that period. He won the British Open eight times and developed a fierce rivalry with Jonah Barrington.

Their training regimes were just as famous as their epic matches, each one pushing the other to reach new heights of skill, stamina and endurance. Hunt dominated the game for long periods until Jahangir Khan came on to the scene.

While Hunt was the classical, consummate artist with a racket, Vicki Cardwell summed up the ferociously competitive nature of many Australian athletes. She was one of the leading players from the late 1970s through to the mid-1990s. During her career, she won the World Open in 1983, and captured the British Open title four consecutive times from 1980-83.

Her matches with British rivals Sue Cogswell and Angela Smith were always brutal, physical battles. Many friends in their 60s and 70s still wince at the memory of the raw confrontation on display in those encounters. Many also wince at the hard drinking that accompanied any tournament party with the Aussie players, male and female, during that incredible era.

Australia’s Heather McKay is the most successful player in squash history

Let’s look at the Australian Squash Hall of Fame:

Sue Newman was the British Open champion in 1978. Rhonda Thorne was the world No.1 and World Open champion in 1981.

Rodney Martin won the 1991 World Open beating Jahangir in the final, having accounted for Jansher Khan in the quarter-finals and fellow Aussie Chris Dittmar in the semis. Martin was a three-time British Open finalist, once leading Jahangir by two games to love before succumbing to a relentless barrage from the mighty Pakistani.

Left-hander Dittmar became world No.1 in 1993. He’s considered to be the best player never to have won a World Open or British Open (four-time losing WO finalist, and two-time lost BO finalist).

Michelle Martin was world No.1 for four years between 1993 and 1999 and won three World Open titles and six British Opens.

Sarah Fitzgerald spent three and a half years as world No.1 and won five World Open titles in 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001 and 2002. She is one of the all-time greats, making her debut for Australia in the 1987 World Team Championships and continuing to be selected in that all-conquering squad until 2010. She is still giving back to the sport in a massive way, building courts in Australia and serving as a vice president of the World Squash Federation. She is also unbeaten in any Masters tournament since turning 35.

Sarah Fitzgerald is still a dominant force in Masters squash events across the globe

Rodney Eyles was World No.2 and won the World Open in 1997.

David Palmer was world No.1 and between 2001 and 2008 he won two World Open titles and four British Opens.

Carol Owens won the world title in Edinburgh in 2000 representing Australia, beating Leilani Joyce of New Zealand after a magnificent battle against Sarah Fitzgerald in the semis. Owens would later switch international allegiance to New Zealand and won a second world title as a Kiwi in 2003, beating England’s Cassie Campion in the final. She also became the first player to win Commonwealth Games gold medals for two different nations.

Rachael Grinham won the World Open in 2007, and the British Open in 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2009. She reached the World No. 1 ranking in August 2004 and held it for 16 consecutive months. She is still winning tournaments at the age of 44. Her younger sister Natalie (married to PSA Commercial Director Tommy Berden) won three Commonwealth Games gold medals and finished runner-up at both the World Open and the British Open. She reached the World No. 2 ranking in 2007.

Related article: Rachael and Jenny open their hearts on life and love in squash

Other notable Aussie players include (highest world ranking in brackets): Danielle Drady (1), Cam Nancarrow (2), Ryan Cuskelly (12), Cameron Pilley (11), Stewart Boswell (4), Anthony Ricketts (3, but he was one match away from becoming world No.1; won British Open in 2005), Dan Jenson (5), Paul Price (4), Byron Davis (14), Donna Lobban (13), Liz Irving (2), Anthony Hill (5), Brett Martin (2), Joe Kneipp (10), Chris Robertson (2), Craig Rowland (7).

Pretty impressive, hey?! Not to mention countless other players who were ranked inside the top 80 in both the men’s and women’s world rankings during these three decades.

Most of us know that in 2003 Forbes Magazine ranked squash as ‘the healthiest sport in the world’. They wrote ‘it encourages quick bursts of speed as well as lunges and quick manoeuvring, rewarding high cardiovascular endurance and muscle strength. Players dart across wooden floorboards dancing around one another!’. (I’m not sure about the dancing part – I’m a horrible dancer!). So why has squash been in decline in the UK and Australia ever since receiving this world renowned award?

In Australia, squash had a massive ‘boom’ period on the back of Heather McKay and Geoff Hunt’s success, fame and popularity, just like we had in the UK after Jonah Barrington became a household name.

In the 80s and 90s heyday, one million Aussies reportedly played squash regularly.

Sarah Fitzgerald explains how squash Down Under rode the wave of this popularity.  “When I was growing up, everyone played squash. It was massive. Every suburb had a squash venue, so it was really accessible, and it was known as a blue-collar sport,” meaning it wasn’t expensive to play and was accessible to everyone, from factory workers to doctors.

In 2016 participation rates had dropped to below 100,000 people nationally – which saw the sport drop 10 places from its 2001 position in the ‘Most popular sports’ table. Currently, it’s marginally above ballroom dancing!

After a dramatic drop in participation comes the inevitable …. over the last 20 years the number of squash courts in Australia has more than halved. For example, I’ve discovered that Brisbane had 90 squash venues with 5,000 registered players in 1982. In 2018 that figure had dropped to 1,000 players over just 20 venues.

“About 20 years ago we had something like 1,300 squash courts around the country – now we’re down to about 580,” Sarah added.

You don’t have to be a genius to realise that this makes perfect business sense, to transform unprofitable squash court space and turn it into lucrative gym space. So, as much as we’d like to, we cannot really blame the individual establishments.

Sarah explains: “There was a time where Australia didn’t have a lot of sports to choose from, but as I’ve grown older I started seeing international sports come to our shores, like soccer, baseball and basketball. Kids have a hell of a lot more choice than I did.”

Heather McKay believes the lack of media attention has lead to the decline of the sport . She stated: “I’ve always said for a sport to be successful it had to be televised.” She also agrees with Sarah, saying: “We have too many sports here! Indoor tennis and indoor cricket came in, and then soccer came along.”

So, we can see that the UK and Australia squash markets are incredibly similar. We both rode a wave of huge popularity and have both seen a massive decline as the boom wore off.

Since 2016, Squash Australia have embarked on a massive participation plan to encourage new people to our sport. The governing body claim their playing numbers are increasing by 20,000 a year since the launch, which seems like a nice solid start.

Rachael Grinham (left) and her partner Jenny Duncalf

Jenny Duncalf assures me that the elite coaching is in good hands with her and Stewart Boswell – so hopefully we’ll see more Aussie presence near the top of the world rankings again in 10-15 years. So watch that space….

England Squash, too, are doing some good things recently, and the SquashFit programme which started this week seems like a great idea and I’ve already heard some positive comments about Monday’s first session with Nick Matthew.

Squash Australia and England Squash need to do whatever they can to embark on a mission to rejuvenate squash in our countries, which they appear to be doing.

However, my issue is that squash governing bodies are always REACTIVE, rarely PROACTIVE. We’re in a situation now where we are seeing some good initiatives, but where were the good ideas 10, 20 or 30 years ago?

Yes, the excuses we have are genuine ones: there are more sports to choose from, we are also competing with video games, and squash has been historically difficult to broadcast. Surely we could have started to plan years earlier for a possible drop-off in participation. It’s like the levels had to drop so low before they were taken seriously, but obviously the longer you wait until you ‘react’ the harder the recovery becomes.

The technical quality of squash broadcasting was dreadful in the 1970s, 80s and 90s yet there was still a massive boom in participation, so putting the blame on broadcasting isn’t totally justified. I feel the media in general has not been serviced well at all in squash, which is why squash is considered a ‘small sport’. It’s only a small sport because our actions or lack of actions has made it into a small sport.

However, this can change, and must change quickly. We now have an exceptional product with SquashTV where the quality of live video is incredible. The scoring is more universal, easier to follow and certainly more viewer friendly.

Coupled with the excitement of the video referee and the phenomenal quality of play by both the men and women, it’s a sport worth advertising. We need to learn how to market our sport better, and we need to learn quickly.

My experience has shown that, when presented in the right way, people new to squash fall in love with the game. It is up to the squash industry to make this happen. If governing bodies can lead, individual venues will follow, and participation will increase.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, squash was showing signs of recovery in many parts of the world. Yes, numbers have seriously declined in the powerhouse nations of England, Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan, but prior to Covid we were seeing increased television coverage and growing numbers in parts of Europe (like Poland).

Egypt is especially exciting, and US squash is thriving within the college scene despite a fall in the number of affordable courts available to the wider public.

So it’s not all doom and gloom. And let’s wish every success to Squash Australia and their new CEO, Robert Donaghue.

Pictures courtesy of PSA and from Squash Mad archive

 

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6 Comments

  1. Such an interesting analysis, Andy, thank you. With luck the sport has at least bottomed out.

    An important notion often brought up by knowledgeable coaches such as Nick Taylor and Richard Millman is the speed of the balls used by average players. Average means anyone who can’t hit the ball hard enough to get it genuinely warm (if it ain’t hot it’s the wrong dot!). To quote Nick:

    “I have got seven-year-olds having 30-shot rallies with these balls*, having time to think about where they are placing the ball, giving them a chance to get the ball back, having to slow the swing down and use the racket face and strings more. MOST IMPORTANTLY, THEY ARE LOVING THE GAME AND TELLING THEIR FRIENDS!” (my capitals)
    * Nick is referring here to a new brand of ball from Eye. “They even do a pink dot.”

    The key to kids choosing squash over the many alternatives or even just the couch can only be that the game is fun. Two ten year old girls I saw when my club was last open could hardly return the shiny, semi-vulcanised relic they were playing with. I doubt they’ll be back. It’s worth remembering that we all PLAY squash. It should be a great run around but also great fun.

    I’ve made little impression in too many discussions about using faster balls. I suspect too many older Masters players secretly prefer the two and three shot rallies they get with double yellows, but even for oldies, running and retrieving and strategy and stamina should be part of the game. For many club players it’s macho to use the same ball as the pros. Then they desert squash for Squash 57 because they aren’t enjoying the proper version.

    It’s worth considering ball speeds from the opposite direction. Pro squash on television is now hugely entertaining, and live it’s even better. I’d like to challenge the doubters: would the pros be nearly as spectacular and entertaining if there were pinholes in their balls, making the bounce equivalent to cold double yellows (the norm at least in winter for many of the less accomplished majority, although probably not in Cairo and Alexandria)? Dead nicks off the serve would abound; anything less than a super tight return would be hit for an unretrievable winner. Hardly anything would be picked up off the back wall.

    Where would the fun be in that? Where has the fun gone for the rest of us?

  2. Andy, Thanks for your interesting article.

    There is no doubting what a wonderful product squash is.

    However, there has never yet been a comprehensive sales and development program anywhere in our sport.

    The sport has been historically driven by enthusiasm of participants.

    Governing bodies have done just what their name says – governed.

    But if there is no-one to govern they have no business acumen or experience to go out and sell the sport.

    Qualifying endless coaches is not going to solve the problem. Coaches by and large are excellent at teaching technical skill to customers who are actively seeking improvement. Most are not good at finding new business and frankly that is not their role. Most are also not good at animating, entertaining and retaining customers who are not currently in their coaching programs – and again that is not their role.

    The sport of squash utterly failed ( with a few exceptions) to even train outreach and new business development and retention skills.

    Squash is a dying past time.

    Unless the paradigm is changed drastically, squash will largely disappear into the mists of time within 20 years.

    There are a few of us rabid enthusiasts trying out best to fight the dying of the light. But that is not enough. There needs to be a mass retraining of the sport.

    Squash is not open, nor welcoming, nor actively seeking change.

    Adapt or die.

    This is not just my say so.

    When I was first a part of the England coaching fraternity as a very young panel tutor, in 1984-86 we were so proud of the fact that, in the Uk, 3.84 million people or 17.5% of the able bodied population played squash regularly. Of course we were caught napping by the emergence of so many new recreational activities from windsurfing to karate to skateboarding and climbing.

    Did we adapt our sales systems?

    No. We just sat and waited for imaginary customers to come to us. Sat in our secluded clubs – few people actually went out to sell squash.

    By 1992 it was down to 1.2 million.

    That was pretty depressing.

    But last week we discovered just how awful things have become.

    After the departure of Keir Worth, England published an advertisement for a new CEO.

    The starting salary is advertised at £70k – an income that a decent assistant pro expects in the USA. Certainly not a salary to attract a superstar executive to rescue a sport in desperate trouble.

    How much trouble?

    The job spec describes the role and says that in England over ‘200000’ people play squash regularly.

    200,000.

    3.84 million to 1.2 million to 200,000.

    The mists of time are getting ready to swallow squash

    Unless someone can completely change the paradigm:

    Let’s hope there is a passionate genius who is willing to give their life to squash – who is independently wealthy.

    Richard Millman

  3. The Double Yellow Dot might be not be ruining our game but I think it’s helping the declining numbers of our game. The XX is marketed for professional competition yet it’s filtered into all our Adult, Masters and Junior Competitions. Dunlop make 7x different squash balls yet the XX is the go to for almost all competition matches and coaching. I remember when the XX was introduced to Melbourne AU, it was only available for the top tier of our State Pennant but over the years it’s become available to all domestic competitions. With an aging demographic it’s just silly thinking it’s suitable for Masters and sillier again to new pennant players.

  4. Thanks Richard. This is really interesting and I’m going to have a good think about it for forthcoming articles.
    Take care.
    Andy

  5. An argument can be made that the growth of squash in the 1970s was largely the result of the tennis boom that took place in that period (it was massive). Any resulting professional success was the result of that undercurrent of a racquet sport boom.

    During that era, racquet sports were “in” and club life was “in”. This is important, as it was more about culture and a general racquet/club lifestyle. You’ll see this in old TV dramas with scenes at the local tennis club (Columbo etc) …

    The private club concept was moved into the middle-class from the super private historic clubs and it became fashionable; like yoga today. Highly evolved fitness and health were not yet a thing and squash and racquetball were a low-square footage addition along the “racquet” and “club” theme. Soon squash-only clubs developed. The more popular tennis had problems in terms of space needed and squash was an efficient racquet solution. Baby boomers were a massive population group in the perfect age sweet spot for racquet sports participation.

    In a twist of fate, our sport is now considered to take up too much space.

    Tastes and demographics changed and squash did not or could not adapt.

    The days of mass casual participation in squash, parties and club life have been replaced by junior academies, competition and high-performance. We have a squash coaching industry left with academies all over the world. Retired touring pros are quick to build out an academy, not a club. Nothing wrong with this, but this not a road to mass appeal.

    The squash club business has not been refined in recent history. We have volunteer run non-profits, old-line wealthy non-profits and courts in commercial gyms.

    To Richard’s point, we have an ecosystem of coaches and administrators but no eager people learning the club or squash business. Pros seem to be inclined to open academies at existing locations, not open new clubs. Do they not know how or simply know that it is not a viable business option? Are they content to run a coaching business or academy on borrowed courts?

    Back in the day, there was high-demand for recreational coaching that went with mass appeal. Pros could be busy coaching regular people, who rushed to clubs. That bottomed out and what seems to left, is junior specific academies and some old players from a bygone era. The meaty middle of casual social players is all but gone.

    I also think there is also a line of thinking where we equate pro tour results with mass appeal. I do not think these two things are aligned. A country can have low mass appeal and still produce top players. Egypt seems to prove this out with 100 million people and I believe only 10 to 20 squash clubs. Egypt has mastered how to produce stylish and highly skilled champions, but I am not sure I can get to mass appeal.

    Generally, the game seems to have become too focused on competition and technical training. Are we a competitive spectator sport or a leisure sport? We seem to have tipped too far over to the competitive side.

    We have to go back to a culture of drop-in round robins, free lessons and trials to maybe rebuild. These types of things are what a sport offers during its growth phase (see pickleball).

    Our sport is in a, dare I say, smug decline. We place a high ticket value on our sport with no cultural value created. We boast of squash bing “the hardest game” and “demanding” assuming that is even what people want.

    We worry about certifications, high-performance, technical training, pro results and juniors. Pickleball just gets people on court having fun with free tips and a heavy social component. I’m not sure they even have junior tournaments yet. They are now evolving to more technical aspects as coaches see an opportunity to make a living.

    Racquet and leisure sports are back but squash seems to be too focused on the technical and not understanding what consumers want.

  6. Excellent points Aubrey. I’ve said this before — Recreational squash in New York City was at its peak in the mid-1980’s. Two key factors were:

    1) We were unable to import the good Dunlop ball into the States, so by default everyone played with a faster ball.

    2) The courts were smaller.

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