Wednesday 29 August 2007

Resurgent British Open - but where's Ramy?

The show court at the 2001 British OpenIt was heartening to read in International Squash magazine Jonah Barrington's enthusiastic endorsement of what he sees as a new "British circuit" emerging (extracts of which are reprinted here).

His comments related to the busy autumn and winter schedule of squash events currently being promoted in the UK. Britain's most successful squash player also commented on the history of the British Open, and how he felt that, with the kind of backing that it is currently being promised, should soon again regain its proud status as the "Wimbledon of squash" - the most prestigious tournament on the tour.

However, around the time I was reading Barrington's comments, the news also broke that Ramy Ashour - currently the hottest ticket in world squash - had decided not to play in next months' British Open in Manchester.

How does Ashour's non-appearance sit with Barrington's vision of the event's status?

Sarah Fitz-Gerald competes in the 2001 British OpenWhy the "Wimbledon of squash"?

I've linked these two stories because they are maybe more related than they first appear. Firstly, I've always found the British Open's claim to greatness through the moniker "the Wimbledon of squash" a strange one, for three reasons:

1. The phrase is bandied around in relation to more than one thing. I have read it used to describe the British Open in order to emphasise its history and prestigiousness. I've also seen it used to describe (hitherto) squash's most important venue in the UK, the now sadly closed Lambs club in London. This multiple use is confusing, and lessens the phrase each time it is (mis?)applied.

2. The Wimbledon Tennis Championships have been around for a long time - since 1877, in fact. Squash's British Open has been in existence since 1922 (for women - interestingly, for sport, the women's tournament has been around for longer than the men's) and 1930 (for men).

However the difference is more significant than in the time the respective events have existed. The great tennis tournament has been held at its landmark venue for the majority of those years, with all the history, drama and memories bound up with the players' and spectators' knowledge of what the "Wimbldeon experience" is - from queuing in the rain to strawberries and cream to "Henman Hill". The tournament is even named after a place (unlike the other tennis Grand Slams), and it is this sense of a sporting venue being special for two weeks of the year that makes for such a great experience.

Ramy Ashour being presented with the Qatar Classic 2007 trophy by Jahangir Khan The British Open doesn't have this enigmatic claim, as it has moved over the years from city to city, venue to venue. The sense of occassion is simply not the same when a tournament is not rooted in the traditions of place.

3. Wimbledon is a tennis tournament, and squash maybe does itself a disservice by defining itself through its relation to another sport.

My argument is not that the British Open has not been (to date) the most important event in world squash. The records books show that it has. It is that the term "the Wimbledon of squash" is a misnomer. Barrington's enthusiasm for the event and his hopes for it to regain its previous hights will be shared by many squash fans (and players), but the degree to which it is possible is open to question, given the sport's decline over the past couple of decades.

Given the fact that the event has struggled over the past few years to attract a lead sponsor, one could argue that the British Open has long ago lost any claim it had to be the revered crown in the professional game. The World Open far out-muscles it in terms of prize money (this year the British Open musters $78,000 for the men's draw, compared to the World Open's $175,000), and it is clear that with the investment in the World title, together with hefty Middle East sponsorship from the likes of Ziad Al-Turki, has meant that the top players are beginning to look elsewhere for ranking points and a sizeable pay day.

Willstop and Ricketts battle it out in the 2005 British Open finalThe Open without the best player

Which brings me to Ashour's decision not to play in this year's competition at the National Squash Centre in Manchester. The tournament's failure to attract this year's top player (Ashour may not yet be the world number one, but it only seems like a matter of time) has received surprisingly little coverage in the squash media, maybe because the young Egyptian's decision may not have been entirely his own: "My manager recommended I didn’t play. It is not good for points. I need to concentrate on other events and watch the points."

I don't think that the British Open needs to boast the highest prize money of any event on the PSA or WISPA tours to retain a sense of its prestige. But it does require a level of sponsorship somewhere in the region of the big events in Qatar, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia in order for promoters to attract the top players.

What seems certain is that without comparable prize money and the ranking points that come with it, more players are likely to withdraw to keep fresh for more lucrative tournaments. History, it seems, may no longer be as important as it was.

But while history (and wanting to be part of an event that has a grand history) will always be important to some, so is change. Perhaps those of use who are well aware of the British Open's past should spend less time trading the tournament on its former glories and take a braver step into the future.

Paul Waters' internationalSPORTgroup clearly have the enthusiasm and a sense of vision that hopefully will tranlsate into the resurgence of the event that Barrington and many of those who love squash crave. The British Open is important to squash as, to an extent, it is its history.

The solution for how this braver step can be taken should thefore a question for the whole squash world, rather than the beliguered promoters who struggle from year to year to prevent the door closing on the Open's history for good.

Ramy Ashour pulls out of British Open 2007

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Wednesday 15 August 2007

Jansher announcement stuns squash world

Jansher Khan won the World Open 8 times and the British Open 6 timesThe squash world did a collective double-take this week, as reports coming out of Pakistan suggested that former world number one and multiple World and British Open champion Jansher Khan is to come out of retirement.

The 38 year-old from Peshawar has announced his intention to play in a "minor world-ranking event" in London in October. Details at scant at present, though the Reuters website reports that it will be held "in London from Oct 11".

Jansher retired in 2001, but believes that he is fit and ready to compete at a professional level once more:

"The reason for my comeback is that I feel I am mentally and physically fit to play the international circuit for another three to four years".

For fans such as myself who did not get to see the legend at the hight of his powers such an appearance is a must-see. For the current crop of male pros, the chance to play one of the game's greats is an intriguing prospect that would be hard to turn down and, as such, should help to boost the profile of the event and raise the prize purse on offer.

Watch this space.

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Saturday 11 August 2007

Lambs club finally closes

Squash courtThe squash courts of London's famous Lambs club fell silent for the last time on 31st July 2007.

The last match to be played at the club was between Lambs' manager Tim Garner and former world number one Peter Nicol.

The nine-court complex - often described as the "Wimbledon of squash" - was bought by developers and will be demolished to make way for a residential development.

The closure follows a two-year fight to save the famous club and preserve a facility that has been used by many of the world's greatest players over the years, including Jahangir Khan.

The loss of the nine courts means that City employees - potentially some of the most influential backers of the game - will have to find another club. This is easier said than done when leisure centres are closing squash courts to make way for more lucrative fitness suites.

A Lambs Action Team has been formed to try to for a new club under the banner, but has yet to find solid backing.

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