Well, the 2011 British Junior Open has come and gone with Emily Whitlock breaking the Egyptian stranglehold on the tournament and winning the girls’ under-17 competition for England.
It was a fantastic performance in Sheffield and marks Emily as a player of formidable potential.
Six titles were won by Egypt and one by Malaysia, providing evidence of a massive shift in power in the game that could last for years.
Here’s what I wrote last year:
Not only did Egypt dominate the British Junior Open in Sheffield once again, they extended their mastery by winning all eight titles at under-13, under-15, under-17 and under-19 level.
Egypt dominated this time as well. Mohamed ElShorbagy led the way with his third under-19 Drysdale Cup success and his younger brother Marwan clinched the under-17 championship. And Nour El Sherbini showed what an amazing prospect she is by winning the girls’ under-19 final at the tender age of 14.
Both finals were all-Egyptian affairs, as were three others, as the 40-strong Egyptian squad raised the bar in junior squash yet again.
Everybody wants to know the Egyptians’ secret. The answer is simple: numbers, with lots of great coaches and loads of kids filling the courts after school every day.
They seem to have a system that allows talented children to rise rapidly through the ranks and not be trapped in the uniformity of the European age-group systems.
The Egyptians have dazzling hotbeds of squash in Cairo and Alexandria and they are clearly able to concentrate most of their competition in those two cities. In England, our juniors (and their parents) are subjected to a relentless slog around the country to collect random ranking points, with parents often choosing to select that route before their children have mastered the basic disciplines required in shot-making, movement and tactics.
That system, by design, will always discriminate against the juniors who choose not to enter so many tournaments but are more gifted than those who do.
A lot of our kids spend more time on the motorway than they do on court, and it’s wearing them out. Some of the time it’s not just travelling to tournaments, it’s the process of finding another junior player to train with or play against because they might be the only boy or girl in their club of county standard.
Clearly, we need more work at grass-roots level to produce a dramatic rise in junior participation levels. We need more British hotbeds like Pontefract, where juniors are inspired by the presence of players like James Willstrop and work hard to emulate his achievements.
All this brings me back to Paul Johnson, and the all-conquering Kent junior team of 20 years ago. The reason for their success? Numbers, once again.
In those days we had big clubs with massive junior sections creating the kind of competitive atmosphere that we see in Egypt.
Bromley Town had 16 courts, including a superb showcourt. That’s gone, along with most of the courts. It’s now a soulless fitness club with five sealed courts tucked away at the back of the building.
Also gone are the Howdens Club in Beckenham (10 courts), Henwood in Ashford (10), Harveys in Maidstone (6), plus Dartford, New Eltham, Dreamland at Margate, Firs in Folkestone, Herne Bay, Woodstock, Faversham, Ramsgate, Erith and many more.
The old Medway Squash Club has also been taken over by a fitness chain that banned juniors from the premises, including a child who was number one in the national under-13 rankings.
All of this has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the numbers of juniors playing squash, especially girls. It’s so serious that any child who picks up a racket can almost walk straight into a county squad. And I know that Kent are not alone in this.
It’s hard to fight against that kind of depressing backdrop, but rest assured those of us who are left are trying to do something about it.
In the next few weeks I look forward to announcing a major development programme being launched in Kent alongside a new professional tournament, the Kent Open.
We might not be able to match the Egyptians at the moment, but to start with we’re trying to get the numbers up.
Watch this space.