Saturday, February 24, 2024

‘We need answers’: Sydney squash club feels council squeeze

Former Australian world champion Michelle Martin has long since battled to save squash courts from meddling councils and developers with little interest in the sport.

Back in 2011, Squash Mad reported that the Australian was front and centre of a campaign over threatened courts. “The council has never had to put their hands up for squash, there’s (no facilities) there, and the sport is dying for a reason – because there’s nowhere to play,” she said at the time.

Over a decade on and Martin’s own squash haven where she still plays and coaches hit the headlines in early January after a local Sydney council, North Beaches, gave North Manly Squash Club 90 days to vacate its Warringah recreation centre base, with a golf clubhouse mooted to be put in its place.

At a time when pockets of funding are being put into the sport with the 2026 Commonwealth Games looming, the potential demolishment is hardly positive news for Australian squash, especially as the Manly courts are the last three courts in the vicinity. It’s a declining trend in Sydney overall, with less than 40 squash centres in the city.

As with most squash courts under threat, councils or developers more often than not have no plan for refurbishment or an equivalent centre. Manly did have cause of optimism as there seemed to be plans recently submitted. But it’s since gone quiet – and then came the eviction missive.

And Martin will fight to the last point.

“The squash community needs certainty that these courts will be replaced,” said the campaign which has been running since last year. “We need new facilities on council land, like other sports, so we can continue to grow our community.”

Martin, who won six British Open titles, three World Open titles and two Commonwealth gold medals, told the Sydney Morning Herald recently: “Young people have been coming in here, especially during Covid and after Covid with the [wet] weather.

“They’re coming back to the sport. They’re starting to take it up. They’ve given up tennis to play squash because they know they’re getting a better workout.” 

Despite Manly’s plight – and let’s hope the council sees sense here – there is good news elsewhere.

Michelle Martin, right, with Manly juniors PIC: North Manly SC/Facebook

Penrith City Council, also in New South Wales, has been awarded £60m for a multi-sports centre, including six squash courts and is expected to be completed in 2025.

“Hopefully this will lead to other Councils including squash courts in their multi-sport arena plans,” a recent Squash NSW release said. “Squash NWS is already working with other councils to increase the access to squash courts and equity compared to other sports so that all their community can enjoy learning and playing squash – a lifetime sport.”

Meanwhile, the Australian Government and Australian Institute of Sport will invest more than £9.7 million in bowls, netball and squash over the next four years to boost preparations for the Victoria 2026 Commonwealth Games, £1.3m going into squash.

Australia and England are level-pegging on 11 gold medals in the Commonwealth Games competition and Squash Australia CEO Robert Donaghue said the sport had big ambitions for Victoria 2026.

He said: “Australia’s squash athletes have a proud history at the Commonwealth Games, which for our sport, is the pinnacle. Thanks to the confirmed funding support from the AIS, we will be able to invest in preparing our athletes and supporting the pathway towards Victoria 2026.”

It follows news of the Professional Squash Association nominating the Australian Open, US Open, PSA World Tour Finals and British Open as the sport’s quarter of blue-ribband events, with each tournament offering over £570,000 in prize money.

According to reports, the tournaments will be backed by a US-based billionaire banker, the events boasting equal prize money for men and women, as has been tradition in recent seasons at top PSA events, as the sport ushers in an ATP-style calendar, with a regionalises structure aimed at helping pro players.

Former World Champion Squash player Michelle Martin

Right now for Manly players harbouring dreams of reach professional heights, that is under threat in Australia. And time is ticking for a centre which is placed on council land.

“The squash community needs certainty that these courts will be replaced,” added Martin. “We need new facilities on council land, like other sports, so we can continue to grow our community.”

The Aussie star is unlikely to go quietly – a world champion voice much-needed. “If they don’t want protests on their golf greens or on their golf tee-offs on a Saturday, they better give us answers,” Martin told The Beaches Champion last month.

“Otherwise, we’ll be standing on their tees going, ‘Sorry – until we get answers you can’t play. I’m happy to do that, I tell you.”

As it stands, Squash NSW and a working group are fighting their corner, with Martin set to address a council meeting at the end of the month.

“It’s a very long five setter and we all need staying power and keep up the fight to win our cause,” the former world champ said.

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