Thursday, March 23, 2023

‘Squash has taken Singapore to a world standard – We need new courts’

Squash Mad speaks to former Singapore No.1 on players of yesteryear and the future of the sport on the sovereign island

Zainal Abidin, a multiple national and Asian champion, looks out towards the modern glass set up he helped install for the Marigold Singapore Open and recalls the time, over 40 years ago, when he was forced to hide at a squash court which led him to a lifetime in the sport.

Abidin first set eyes on squash as a 19-year-old in 1978; eight years later he was Singapore’s sportsman of the year. He was originally a decent Division 1 soccer player but found the team enviroment “boring”. This all changed while undergoing National Service – compulsory for all Singaporeans aged 18 – when he stopped going for training one day. His no-nonsense coach headed to the squash courts where a competition was going on, in the hope of prizing Abidin back to the pitch.

Abidin was stuck for three hours hiding in a corner watching players take to court, less he would be found if he made a single step out into the open. “I saw all these people playing and thought ‘Why don’t they do this?’ and all these things,” he smiles. “I was assessing them as I had nothing better to do!”

Thus, he set himself on the path of becoming a top sportsman and trained every day – all bar 10 – on court in his first year. Abidin became national champion in his second year playing the sport. Overall, he was an 11-time national title holder and nine-time Asian champion.

Zainal Abidin in front of the court he helped install at the recent Singapore Open

By now the professional era was beginning to take effect, yet the Singaporean No.1 did manage to produce several big scalps of more established names which he recalls with relish today. In 1989 at the Penang Open in Malaysia, the week before the World Championships, he reached the final with wins over Mark McLean and Adrian Davies, before overcoming Kiwi star Ross Norman in the final.

He then played Jansher Khan a year later. “Of course, I was 2-1 and 6-1 up and I lost against them,” says Abidin, who is director of Courtech Asia and has his own elite squash academy. “Coming from a place like Singapore I didn’t get that much exposure. My exposure was based on hard work.” 

He did manage to gain sponsorship from the president at the time, meaning that he was able to travel to the UK to train and play. There was also success at the World Team Championships with Singapore producing several top 10 finishes in the late 1980s.

Three decades on and the plight of the game is well documented by Squash Mad, with the Kallang National Centre slated for the bulldozers, unless last-ditch talks can stave off another threatened facility.

“I’m definitely very sad at the situation,” Abidin says. “I don’t know the plan and I’m hoping that someone from the sports council will look at it. Squash has performed well over time and they should look at how squash has taken Singapore to a world standard. 

“We aren’t able to spread the game as the public courts that are made available are so little. It’s only in one particular area here and that’s the setback. But under new president Patrick Thio he has done a great job and the level of the game will be back.”

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