Saturday 24 March 2007

A classic at Canary Wharf

The stunning East Wintergarden venue at Canary WharfWhen I heard that world number one Amr Shabana and Australian Anthony Ricketts had withdrawn though injury from the Canary Wharf Classic 2007, I felt sorry for the spectators (and promoters) that they would not be treated to as strong a line-up as in previous years.

How wrong I was. The competitive edge at the top of men's squash nowadays means that there are almost no easy games - and the first semi-final (I was there on the Thursday night) was a minor classic. But more later.

Arriving at the East Wintergarden by the back door, I entered the sponsors'/bar area to a wall of noise. There's a gilt edge to this tournament that's not visible at venues elsewhere in Britain (though they have their own charms); I think it's a combination of the majesty of the venue (see right) and the fact there there is, simply, more money sloshing around: being in the heart of the city there are lots of suits in attendance. Anticipation was also palpable before I found my way to my sidewall seat, and it was great to see such a wide range of spectator, with many clearly watching professional squash for the first time.

The build-up: getting it right

Alan Thatcher on court with a young member of the audience during the build-upSomething that I've noticed that squash doesn't do as well as other spectator sports (football is a good example) is fill the "performance space" with activity prior to the main event. This leaves the audience talking amongst themselves while staring blankly into the glass box in front of them. So it was great to see master of ceremonies Alan Thatcher orchestrating a kids' hitting-accuracy competition before Lincou and White arrived on court for the first of the semis.

John White looked lean and (and mean, with crewcut for emphasis), and set out to blast Thierry Lincou off court from the first point. The Frenchman is a well-known as a slower starter, and couldn't compete with the Scot's scything cross-court kills in the first.

It quickly became apparent that Lincou would have to out-think his opponent rather than match his muscular game, and this he did, neutralising White's power in the second with some clever deceptions which frequently caught the lanky former winner flat-footed. It wasn't enough though, and White persisted in bullying his way to 12-10.

Innovative officiating

A plasma replay screen and the VIP gallery at the East WintergardenA new feature introduced by the officials to this year's competition was a "three referee" system, designed to minimise the number of player-official confrontations over disputed points. What was interesting was that one of the officials was a player (in the White-Lincou game it was Adrian Grant), with a majority-vote being taken via hand signals from the officials placed throughout the back-wall crowd. What looked like an elaborate game of scissors-paper-stone was actually a reliable and highly-workable form of officiating, though I don't know if this would work in a World Open or Commonwealth Games final when stakes are higher (could all player-officials be trusted to be 100% impartial?).

Infuriating Lincou: the first semi-final

Lincou and White prepare for the first of the semisIt must be infuriating to play Lincou; he gives nothing away and is impossible to read. Browsing the programme I picked up when arriving at the East Wintergarden (noticeably well-written - the player profiles actually gave an impression of the players' characters rather than the usual list of statistics) in between games I read an article about the player from Reunion Island that revealed a keen interest in the psychological aspects of the game. He is a master at keeping his cool, though he has the fitness to match. His physical as well as mental stamina took the next game from White 11-9, and we were set for a five-game marathon.

Lincou's greater concentration showed in the next game, as White got increasingly frustrated, with Lincou maintaining his poker face. Tinned drops cost White dear as Lincou brought the match to a decider.

The turning point came in the final game came when White was 7-5 down. Pulling off some astonishing retrievals to keep himself alive, he forced Lincou to hit a loose drive down the middle. Putting away the kill brought the sell-out crowd to their feet, and any neutrals in the crowd by this stage would have thought that he'd done enough to deserve the win. It was still point-for-point until the end, but the momentum was White's. After winning 12-10 the crowd gave both players the longest standing ovation I've witnessed at an event in this country.

Willstrop v Matthew

Willstrop and White battle it out in the finalThe second match between James Willstrop and Nick Matthew was never going to match the intensity of what preceded it. Matthew was obviously not at full strength after recovering from injury and illness and British champion Willstrop won in straight games.

By Friday John White's string of five-game matches had clearly taken their toll, though he still had the gas to force Willstrop to fight for his second title. A patient Willstrop gradually wore the Scotsman down, and the US-based player finally wilted towards the end of (yet another) match that went the distance.

It was the English number one's second win in a row over White, and it will be interesting to see if he can sustain a winning streak to claim the world number one spot that, on this evidence, he is clearly capable of.

Canary Wharf Classic 2007

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Friday 23 March 2007

English players reflect on missed Olympic opportunity

Peter Nicol wins Commonwealth gold in Melbourne 2006Another supportive article on the BBC website quotes a number of the leading English players questioning why squash was left out of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

With so many of home-grown players - both men and women - in the top 20 in the world, many see this as a lost opportunity for Britain to win medals in 2012.

Speaking from the successful Canary Wharf event that Peter Nicol promotes, the now-retired squash legend says that it "hurt like hell" when his sport was denied a place in the London Olympics, though he adds: "We have a very realistic chance of getting in for 2016 - I think it's just a matter of time."

26 year-old Nick Matthew is also quoted, lamenting the fact that he and other young English players will be past their peak should squash make it into the 2016 games.

An even more supportive "606" article on the BBC takes up this theme and asks readers for their comments - have your say!

Read the article

Lend your support on the 606 message board
Listen to Peter Nicol's interview on the BBC
2012 Olympics: Squash funding to suffer?

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Wednesday 21 March 2007

No Super Series in 2007

London's Broadgate Arena will no longer host the Super Series FinalsIt has been sadly announced that there will be no men's Super Series Finals at Broadgate Arena in London this year.

I have attended this event for the past few years, and have seen some classic confrontations - the pick of which must have been Jonathon Power's demolition of the more highly-fancied Thierry Lincou in straight games in the 2005 final.

Each year, six touranaments on the tour are designated Super Series events. These include major events such as the World Open and the PSA Masters. Then, early the next year, the eight best-performing players from the Super Series events are invited to compete in the Super Series Squash Finals (a similar event to the Tennis Masters Cup).

Though squash has recently attracted some big-money investment, it seems that sponsors are still hesitant about offering funding to tournaments in Britain.

Madrid Steps in to save Women's World Open

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Thursday 15 March 2007

Madrid steps in to save World Open

The governing body of the professional women's squash tour, WISPA, has announced that Madrid will host this year's World Open. The event had been in doubt after negotiations with other hosts had fallen through.

Promisingly for the event, the $100,000 prize fund at stake makes it the richest event ever to be staged in women's squash.

Time to start booking those early Easyjet flights ...

Have your say:
How strong is the women's game?

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Saturday 10 March 2007

Women on top with KL prize purse

In an article I wrote a while back I asked readers to comment on the popularity of the women's game.

Nicol DavidLack of spectators is obviously not a probem in Kuala Lumpur, where the prize fund for the KL Open 2007 WISPA event was $44k, compared to $40k for the men.

This may be down to the participation of world champion Nicol David, a big star in her home country of Malaysia and the eventual winner of the tournament, beating Australia's Natalie Grinham in the final.

The fact that the women's prize fund exceeded the men's suggest that it is player marketability, and not the more well-worn factors such as game length or greater fitness, that determines who should be paid more in a particular event.

Have your say:
How strong is the women's game?

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Tuesday 6 March 2007

Bat for Lashes

When my housemate looked up from his newspaper on Saturday and announced "there's review here of a pop song just by a squash player", I assumed it was a new offering from former pros-turned-singers Ahmed Barada or Paul Price.

It turned out that it was a new single from Bat for Lashes, aka Natasha Khan - not a player herself, but a member of the great Pakistani squash-playing dynasty (as the Guardian put it, "a bit like the Ming, but with less impressive crockery").

Have a listen here.

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Thursday 1 March 2007

Return to Grand Central

Grand Central Station, New YorkOne of squash's show-piece venues, Grand Central Station in New York, is this week hosting the Tournament of Champions 2007.

The terminus has hosted the event for a number of years, and provides a spectacular arena for players, spectators and passing commuters alike.

Results indicate that this year's event has been one of the most exciting in its history, with seeds crashing out in a number of upsets.

By all accounts the much-anticipated quarter final meeting of wonderkid Ramy Ashour and former World Junior Champion James Willstrop didn't disappoint, and those who were lucky enough to have witnessed the first major tournament clash between two of the sport's brightest talents are already talking of it as a minor classic.

Tournament of Champions 2007

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