Sunday 9 September 2007

English Grand Prix 2007

James Willstrop defeats Thierry Lincou in the final of the English Grand Prix 2007I had planned to attend the British Open in Manchester this autumn, however the prohibitive cost of a London-Manchester train ticket and accompanying accommodation meant that I would have to find another tournament (London events where art thou?).

There were a few to choose from, given the busy schedule of events this season. A £15 return fare on Chiltern railways to Birmingham made up my mind, and I headed up to the west Midlands for some squash and a balti.

Though the English Grand Prix hadn't attracted the same quality of entrants as the British Open, it wasn't the standard of squash that somewhat clouded my experience in Birmingham ...

For the Saturday (semi-final) night that I attended was the first evening of squash I'd seen that was dominated not by the players, but by the officials.

The first semi-final saw Australian David Palmer take on James Willstrop, with the World Champion Palmer looking lean and fitter than his much younger opponent. The match see-sawed back and forth, and from early on destined to go the distance - Willstrop using a greater range of shots to deceive his opponent, while Palmer content to work the ball to a more consistent length.

Spectators at the English Grand Prix 2007From my sidewall vantage point I couldn't see the referee and marker, and apparently there was a third official in place in order to give the "majority decisions" that were called at a number of disputed moments.

I've seen this system in operation before with three players used to officiate on close calls at Canary Wharf, but on this occasion (if the same system was in place), it didn't seem to work, and Palmer in particular came off worse. A disputed call when Willstrop was at match point did not inspire much confidence, as the officials seemed to look to the players for direction.

This was a close match between two evenly matched players, but Palmer can feel justified in feeling frustrated - the inconsistency in decision making clearly upset his rhythm. Given his tendency to vent his frustrations, all credit to him for accepting the decisions with grace.

The Aston Webb Great Hall at the University of BirminghamTaking a stroll round the Aston Webb Great Hall during the break between matches, I was able to appreciate what a dramatic venue for squash the promoters had found. The entrance of the players from high up above the stage was a nice touch, but seemed a little melodramatic given the relatively small number of spectators.

Though the back wall spectator area was sold-out, the sidewall section where we were seated had round tables with unreserved seating. This is more comfortable for the likes of tall people like squashblogger, though usually means that the promoters have sadly sold fewer tickets than expected (the tickets that were being given away during the week seemed to confirm this).

The crowd had some familiar faces, and seemed mostly to be from the squash community. Given the fact that the hall was in the middle of a campus university when the students are on holiday, this was not surprising - unlike the aforementioned Canary Wharf tournament, the event was unlikely to attract "passing" spectators.

To the promoters' credit, they seemed particularly attendant to the paying punters' experience, and we were asked a couple of times if we would like to move to the back wall to get a better view.

Stained glass window in the Great Hall at the University of BirminghamThis we duly did (thanks Paul Waters), only to see Greg Gaultier's match against compatriot Thierry Lincou (looking slightly sluggish compared in comparison after a five-gamer the previous night) similarly marred by poor officiating.

Gaultier, like Palmer, is less fractious now than his younger self, but he lost his temper a number of times here, and justifiably so. On the receiving end of some poor decisions (by this time the groaning back wall crowd had begun to sense that this was to be the common theme of the night), the Frenchman repeatedly asked the officials to justify why a let was given. On one occasion, Lincou simply slipped over - a good five feet away from his opponent - and a let was given. An incredulous Gaultier asked why, only to be told to shut up and get on with the game.

A spectator sitting in the sidewall seatingThe most bizarre incident occurred in the third, with Gaultier conceding that a ball was down. The officials obviously did not see whether the ball was indeed down, and asked the players for clarification. At this point something was lost in translation, with Lincou repeating the word "concede" - which the officials took to mean that he - and not Gaultier - was conceding the point!

I felt that the officials repeated requests for "Mr Gaultier" to get on with the game were masking the fact that they had lost touch with the match (the score was also misquoted at least once). The crowd new it, and even Malcolm Willstrop, sitting to my right, giving a withering shake of the head at the proceedings.

Gaultier lost in five, clearly unsettled by the repeated breaks in the games. Lincou did what he is best at - keeping his head down and plugging away until his opponent makes mistakes.

They were introduced as "friends" as the came on to court, but the unlikely provocation that they had to contend with might have gone someway to test that claim, given the number of times it was implied they had to sort sticky situations out for themselves.

Lincou and Gaultier warm up for their semi-finalThere will always be times in a fast-moving game like squash when players are called upon to show sportsmanship and act honestly. But both semis of this tournament strained this principle to unreasonable lengths. Maybe the fact that this was the first time I'd seen the officials have a bad game means that their usual "invisibility" is indicative of assured professionalism and excellent judgement. But tonight, they did have a shocker.

The trophy was won on Sunday by Willstrop in another game that went the distance - the English number one's "who dares wins" attitude during an attacking fifth game finally breaking down the Gallic challenge.

Right: a video of the last point of the final, as recorded by a spectator and posted on YouTube.

Willstrop beats Lincou 11/8, 11/8, 9/11, 7/11, 11/3 (77 mins)

1 comment:

  1. Great venue, bus disappointing that there were not more people there watching.


Feel free to comment anonymously or leave your name.

Care about the future of squash? Get it off your chest ...