WSF Ambassador visit ‘a dream come true’ for Ukraine
By HOWARD HARDING – Squash Mad International Correspondent
The WSF Ambassador Programme visit to Ukraine was a ‘dream come true’ for squash in the country said the Ukrainian Squash Federation President Anastasiia Netrebchuk at the end of an action-packed two-day series of events in the capital Kiev led by Egypt’s three-time world champion Ramy Ashour and France’s British and US Open champion Camille Serme.
Launched in 2011, the World Squash Federation international promotional initiative takes two leading squash players, together with an international coach and referee, into younger squash nations to inspire and help raise the sport’s profile through clinics, exhibition matches, refereeing and coaching seminars, and media presentations.
Ukrainian players, junior and senior, lined up to play Ashour and Serme at the city’s Grand Prix club. Belgian national coach Ronny Vlassaks enthused coaches from the length and breadth of Ukraine and Belarus on the art of coaching, and Slovenian international referee Marko Podgorsek conducted two well-attended workshops to explain the finer points of refereeing in squash.
It was standing-room only at a packed press conference at Grand Prix, where Ukraine Sports Committee President Illia Shevlyak told the media representatives: “I will do everything I can to support squash in Ukraine.
“Squash and the Olympics is a perfect fit – I think squash will be in Paris,” added Shevlyak, who oversees the 47 non-Olympic sports in Ukraine. “It’s a very dynamic sport. The Ukrainian Squash Federation, which was only established six years ago, is a brilliant example of what can be done to promote a sport here.
“I am so happy to see so many journalists here, supporting squash.”
When asked about the sport’s inclusion in the programme for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France’s six-time European champion Camille Serme said: “If we make it, I hope I will be able to participate. I’ll only be 35!”
Former world number one Ashour, who played a major part in the 2020 campaign, said: “I’d be very happy if we made it – and would be proud to tell my kids that I helped it happen!”
When asked about his coaching presentations, Vlassaks told the media: “I had 25 coaches in my workshop – which is fantastic!
“You will definitely have a world champion in the future – but first you’ve got to find him or her, then you’ve got to help them develop.”
Squash in Ukraine can trace its roots back to 2000, when Anastasiia Netrebchuk and Semen Lazutenkou both played squash on the country’s sole court at Kiev Sports Club. So enthusiastic was property developer Lazutenkou after a visit to Amsterdam in 2008 to support Ukraine’s first appearance in the European Team Championships that he decided to build the four-court Grand Prix club.
“Last year was a highlight for Ukrainian squash as we competed for the first time in the World Games in Poland,” said Netrebchuk, now the federation’s President. “And now this year our top junior player Nadiia Usenko has been selected as a SquashFORWARD ambassador by the WSF.
“And to top it all, we now have this Ambassador Programme visit. It’s a dream come true for us. It’s a big step towards developing squash in our country.
“We already have courts in other cities but we need to build even more facilities around the country – not just in Kiev. We want to bring on our juniors and compete in more international events, not only all the European championships including U15, U17 and U19 categories, but also world championships.
“The current success of players like Nadiia Usenko and 17-year-old Alina Bushma, will give other juniors here a focus.”
Usenko is Ukraine’s most successful junior. Currently ranked No.2 in the European U19 rankings, she moves to the USA later this year autumn to start studying at Trinity College in Connecticut.
The 18-year-old from Kiev revealed: “I started playing tennis at the age of six but when I saw my parents come home at weekends with trophies for their squash success, I decided to give it a try. For a time I played both sports, but when I decided I wanted to be a professional athlete, I went for squash. I am so happy to be a SquashFORWARD ambassador.”
Later, a farewell reception for the team was attended by Yaroslav Madriy, State Coach of the Sports Ministry, who said: “Squash has really come on in this country in the last few years.
“This Ambassador Programme has been a very good initiative for the sport here. But what makes it so special is that your top athletes are not just visiting us but also giving our players the chance to be with them on court.”
Serme was delighted with her maiden appearance as a WSF Ambassador: “It was an honour to be chosen, for me and for French Squash, and to be here with Ramy made it extra special – he’s such a champion.
“It was my first visit to both countries. People have been so welcoming, it was great to see so many adults and kids happy that we were here. That was good.
“I have seen Nadiia (Usenko) improve a lot over recent years and I think she could become a top player.”
With his impressions of the Ambassador Programme initiative, Ashour added: “It’s very healthy for the sport, going around the world and having this kind of coverage and being on TV in different countries and different cultures – showing the world what we have got and how cool the sport is. The more we do these things and get the word out there, the more people around the world will understand us.
“I’ve never been to Ukraine or Armenia before so that made it even more special for me. I like to know where squash is in every nation and every culture – I want to be more aware of these kinds of things. I think the WSF is doing a great job promoting the sport by getting us there and pursuing the Olympic dream.
“It’s really been a delight and pleasure to meet so many enthusiastic people. I am very humbled and very grateful to be part of this – it’s been amazing.”
Vlassaks, who was welcomed back with open arms having presented the first coaching course in Ukraine nine years ago, said: “Things have developed well over the past nine years. When I first came here there was nothing in terms of coaching, or even players. They’ve done a good job since then.
“Many years ago it was an elite sport here, but now you have clubs which you can just go in and play.
“It surprised me quite a lot just how many junior players we saw here. That’s a good sign and a few will come through, for sure.”
Marko Podgorsek (pictured above) was also pleased with the interest in his workshop: “There were 15 referees on my course, not only from Ukraine but also from Russia and Belarus.
“Refereeing is better organised here than in many countries, mainly thanks to Robert Wrobel, a Russian who has helped translate the rules into the language of various countries including Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, Russia and Latvia.
“It was good to be able to add to their basic knowledge of the rules with an insight into where squash refereeing is going and to know what to look out for.”
WSF Chief Executive Andrew Shelley summed up the leadership of Ukraine Squash and their community in general at the media conference, saying: “You have a strong tradition of boxing in Ukraine – we know the career of the Klitschko brothers, of course – and to borrow a phrase from that sport, Ukrainian Squash definitely punches above its weight.
“You have great squash leadership and a really vibrant community spread across the country. You are achieving international success now too – including new SquashFORWARD member Nadiia Usenko, a top junior who will help shape the future of our sport.
“Squash in Ukraine is in good hands and flourishing. We salute you.”
Since 2011, the WSF Ambassador Programme has visited Latvia, Malawi, Namibia, Panama, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea, Serbia, Romania, Croatia, Dalian and Macau in China and last week Armenia.
Pictures courtesy of WSF and LARA MORGAN