Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Decisions, decisions: What the stats tell us about squash’s ‘interference offenders’

JAMIE ABBOTT, co-founder of squash data business Cross Court Analytics, crunches the numbers on refereeing decisions in the men’s and women’s games.

Two feisty rivalries, two injuries, two refereeing decisions on game ball: at the 2022 World Tour Finals, Nouran Gohar drilled the ball into the calf of compatriot Hania El Hammamy. El Hammamy later shared striking images of the injury she sustained during the interference, which had resulted in Gohar being awarded a stroke.

For all El Hammamy’s undoubted anger and pain, she let the incident pass with minimum fuss. No words. No complaints. She was even the quicker player back on court for the start of the new game.

At the 2023 Houston Open, Mostafa Asal caught Marwan ElShorbagy in the groin with his follow through. What initially appeared innocuous turned out the opposite: ElShorbagy was left writhing on court, coiled and screaming; the footage is distressing viewing.

After a 15-minute injury break, the referee concluded ElShorbagy could not continue: Asal was docked a stroke for the interference, but walked away with the match. To describe this encounter as stop-start would be an understatement: Asal won seven of his 11 points in the opening game via stroke decisions alone.

Incidents like these leave the squash community with a certain perception: while the women’s tour is a no-nonsense competition in which players accept contact and play on, a ‘culture of interference’ has become established in the men’s game, with players ever more frequently appealing to the referee to award the point.

To add hard evidence to the interference debate, Cross Court Analytics analysed over 20,000 rallies from the PSA World Tour to examine whether refereeing decisions play a bigger part in the men’s game than in the women’s – and the conclusions aren’t as straightforward as you may think.

Total decisions made 

On the women’s tour, the referee is called upon to make an interference decision – that is, awarding a yes let, a no let, or a stroke – on average four times per game. On the men’s tour, referees make one call more, at an average of five decisions per game. With matches lasting four games on average, the typical number of refereeing decisions per match is 16 on the women’s tour and 20 on the men’s. The men’s game does indeed contain more interventions.

Men play longer rallies 

But this may not be surprising. After all, the men’s game – with an average of 15 shots per rally – typically consists of lengthier exchanges than the women’s game (11 shots per rally). Longer points offer more opportunities for interference.

When the number of refereeing decisions is compared across an equal number of shots, seven of the top 10 spots for interventions come from the women’s tour. Matches involving Joelle King, Nour El Sherbini and Tesni Evans all require more than two decisions per 100 shots. Matches involving Paul Coll require referee intervention more than five times per game, but given the Kiwi’s inclination for gruelling exchanges, this translates to only one decision every 70 shots.

Rallies ending in a decision 

The number of refereeing decisions per 100 shots is revealing, but problematic. It overlooks the fact that 100 shots equates to roughly nine full rallies on the women’s tour, but only six or seven on the men’s. It’s natural to expect more decisions from a higher number of rallies.

Perhaps the fairest way to examine the number of refereeing calls, then, is to ask, ‘What percentage of rallies end in a decision?’. On the men’s tour, 24% of rallies result in a refereeing decision; on the women’s tour, this drops to 20%. Phrased differently, one in five rallies on the women’s tour end in a decision; on the men’s tour it’s one in four.

Asal tops the rankings, again 

One thing’s for certain, though. No matter how you cut the data, Asal comes in at the top. Games involving the 21-year-old Egyptian require on average of eight refereeing interventions, three decisions more than typical for the men’s tour. You can expect over 30 decisions to be made when watching a typical Asal match: one decision every three rallies.  

It is worth remembering, however, that these stats do not assign responsibility for the interference to either player. Fans of Asal may see such high numbers as vindication that their man has gained an unfair reputation among referees, leading to opponents asking for more interference calls.

Others will see these stats as proof that Asal seeks cheap points and pushes the boundaries of ‘fair’ play. Either way, one third of Asal’s rallies ending with an appeal only detracts from the spectacle that is watching the world No.1 in action. 

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