Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Trailblazer Angela Smith fears for the future of squash as playing numbers decline

‘Without grassroots investment the game will fade away and die’
By ANGELA SMITH – Squash Mad Correspondent

I am certain that I am not alone in feeling really concerned about the state of squash not only in Britain but throughout most parts of the world. Time moves on but squash has gone backwards.

Now the “flagship” for our sport, the Commonwealth Games, may be changing its format, meaning that squash will no longer be guaranteed a place at the table.

I am looking forward to watching the Games in Birmingham in the summer, and I am impressed by the promotional work being undertaken by the Squash United group around the event.

I sincerely hope their efforts are rewarded, because the state of the game at grassroots level is in a perilous condition.

When I first started playing in the 1970s, my home town of Stoke-on-Trent had no squash club but a municipal sports facility was built with three courts. That is where I fell in love with the sport and very quickly the city had seven privately owned squash clubs, all extremely busy.

Many readers will be able to recount similar stories of local leagues full of players who loved the sport and represented clubs. Then things changed. The space could be used more profitably for aerobics, spinning classes and all manner of alternative exercise. Unfortunately, as more creative and financially beneficial uses were found for that same space, squash continued as it was.

When the commercial club owners disappeared from the squash scene, they took their creative ideas with them and we were left with well-meaning but ineffective volunteers running large parts of the sport.

I am happy to admit that I frequently clashed with some of those committee types during my playing days.

I was one of the first female players to turn professional with a view of making my living via tournament play rather than coaching.

I am very proud that I helped to set up the women’s professional group then known as WISPA. It was tough in the early days but the game grew and the sport is now watched throughout the world – and the quality of play is outstanding.

However, it is all very well having the sport function at an elite level, but how long can this last? If youngsters cannot access courts and clubs and have fun, seeing role models that they can aspire to, then the sport has no future. Top-class professionals will gravitate to the few good clubs that exist in small pockets around the country but this is clearly not enough.

Unfortunately, this is not a problem confined to our shores alone. I am sure that some forward thinking business people could help to try to arrest the slide and former players, from internationals to local “hackers”, might be able to help.

Quite what the World Squash Federation and other governing bodies are doing or planning to do about it, if anything, I have no idea. But I fear for the game that we all love and can see sports such as padel and pickleball taking the space that squash once held. They are innovative and well marketed, everything that squash sadly isn’t.

I know that many squash players switched to outdoor pursuits during lockdown and are reluctant to return to dingy, old-fashioned clubs. This is reflected in a further decline in many parts of the globe with playing numbers nowhere near pre-lockdown figures.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I don’t really want this to be all about me, but to highlight how we changed things for the better in the late 70s and where we are now.

I came onto the scene in the mid 70s having learned to play at the local municipal courts in Stoke-on-Trent. I was British Open Under-23 champion in 1976. I then won the British Closed in 1977 and through my career won a host of national and international events and titles.

I first represented GB as an amateur in 1976 when we toured Australia playing the Aussies and New Zealand. It was following that tour that I began to think about my future. Like everyone, I needed to earn a living but to play top squash we all needed to train more and be more professional.

I laugh now when I look back at our meagre allowance on that first tour. It was so different then, as it was in all sports. In fact, the changes in our game have been amazing, that is why I feel so sad at the apparent demise of squash.

I represented GB from 1976-81 and England from 1976-83. I turned pro at the end of 1978 but I was not selected for GB in 1978 when I turned professional until the game became open in 1979.

Myself, Barbara Wall, Lyle Hubinger and Sue Newman (nee King) joined forces to play matches around the country and earn some cash. We joined up with Bryan Patterson and a variety of men to play competitive games. It went extremely well.

The only difficulty for me was not being allowed to play for my country. Luckily it became apparent that other women were keen to join us, because playing tournaments and being “paid” with a gift voucher was not enough reward for the effort expended.

The Women’s International Squash Players Association was formed in March 1979. Heather McKay was the first Chairman and I was the UK delegate.

In 1979 GB won the first ever World Team event and from 1981 the home nations competed individually.

The early years were tough and I was delighted when more overseas players joined forces with us. Slowly, players from the UK came on board too. I look back on some of the battles I had over the years and always come back to those epic encounters with Vicki Hoffman (now Cardwell).

They were not for the faint hearted and many years on, when people catch up with me, they often recall those battles. Fierce and competitive, the squash “establishment” cringed.

When I defeated Vicki in that famous World Team Final I actually thought I saw a flicker of a smile across the WSRA executive faces, but I am probably mistaken.

I enjoyed coaching in the USA, Bahamas, Spain and many other countries following my retirement from the professional circuit and I am immensely proud to have played a small part in the growth of the women’s game.

Without more investment in the game at grassroots level I fear that myself and those players from previous successful eras, who still take a keen interest in the game, will see it wither and subsequently die.

Many of us are willing to step forward and do anything we can to help, but many current federation officials have no idea who we are, and often ignore our communications.

Why Angela Smith deserves a medal

Squash Mad editor and publisher Alan Thatcher writes: Angela is far too modest to list all of her extraordinary achievements in squash. We often hear about the formation of the men’s professional tour, but rarely hear anything about the women’s equivalent.

Angela Smith was one of the main drivers of professional squash for women, knocking on doors and often barging them down to make sure that the women’s voice was heard loud and clear.  Those early years produced some brutal, physical competition at the top of the game, with Angela, Sue Cogswell and Vicki Cardwell fierce rivals on court. 

Off court, Angela used her connections to persuade Hi-Tec to step in to support the British Open during those golden years of sell-out crowds at Wembley Conference Centre.

Jahangir Khan dominated the headlines as he won the tournament 10 years in a row, but, behind the scenes, Angela deserved a medal for her involvement in setting up one of the most important sponsorship partnerships in the history of squash.

Angela and I talk frequently about how we can rescue squash and relaunch the game to combat the current decline in playing numbers.

We are very keen to hear from anyone who would like to join forces.

Related article:

Read more

Latest News