Friday 18 April 2008

The future's orange?

Annelize NaudeI recently cycled around parts of the Netherlands, and can vouch for all that you've heard about it being a very cool, flat and friendly place.

I didn't have time to pop into the Squash City club in Amsterdam, which was a shame, as from its website (check out the 'Foto Tour') it looks like the kind of one-stop funhouse where you round off a game with a languid pose around the solarium, orange cocktails at the bar and a health-and-safety bustin' lock-in with the staff ...

Ok, I've not been there. But when you add those facilities to its 13 glass-backed courts, it's basically as far from my mouldy and municipal London squash shed as you can get.

If the general level of facilities in the country are that good it's no wonder Dutch women's squash is in a rude state of health at the moment.

And it's just got even better, as a certain Amsterdam resident has decided that playing squash in the Netherlands is worth changing your nationality for.

I've written enough on this site recently about the rise of the Egyptians, the great potential in the Indian national squad and strong showings in the junior ranks in other countries.

Strength in depth

Yet a glance at the stats since Grinham's defection shows that Dutch women's squash now has significant strength in depth, particularly when compared against European opposition, with 9 players in the WISPA 100 rankings (March 2008):

Natalie Grinham (2)
Vanessa Atkinson (10)
Annelize Naude (17)
Orla Noom (35)
Margriet Huisman (38)
Karen Kronemeyer (57)
Milja Dorenbos (75)
Dagmar Vermeulen (83)
Milou Van Der Heijden (84)

Squash City in AmsterdamMuch of the success of Amsterdam as a training base for many top players appears to be down to the coaching of Liz Irving, former New Zealand international and three-time finalist at the British Open.

Irving has coached players such as Vanessa Atkinson (a former World Champion), the current World number 1, Nicol David, and other Dutch players such as Naude and Karen Kronemeyer.

In the 2006 European Women's Team Squash Championships, the Netherlands were comprehensively beaten 3-0 by England in the final (though their top-ranked player Atkinson retired injured against Vicky Botwright), and in the Women's World Team Squash Championships in the same year in Edmonton came 4th after losing to Malaysia.

Right: slideshow of the Forexx Dutch Open 2007.

The European Team Squash Championships will this year be held in Amsterdam from April 30th – May 3rd, and the women will be hoping that home advantage coupled with a camp strengthened by the addition of Grinham (whom will not be eligible to represent her new country until 2009) will help them wrest the title from the English*.

Globalisation and squash

The Dutch squash federation is "ecstatic" about Grinham's decision to play for them, as it says on the Euro Teams website:

"The choice of Natalie to become Dutch not only gives us a real chance to win a European - and/or World title in the near future with our women's team, but it also means an enormous boost to the juniors and other top players in our country."

Grinham's decision to change nationality (speculation of personal reasons why she might have made it aside for moment) is less controversial than it once would have been given that switching allegience from country-to-country by professional athletes is far more commonplace across sport in general.

Vanessa Atkinson in actionPeter Nicol's move from Scotland to England made the front pages of a few national newspapers. But John White's decision to appear under the Scottish flag made few waves in the media, and I've read nothing that criticises Natalie Granger's globetrotting as either a slight on the country of her birth (England) or where she grew up (South Africa).

Neither can it be claimed that Granger's switch from England to South Africa to the US has been detrimental to her own career. She has climbed back up the rankings and, as an ambassador for squash in her role as WISPA President, she appears to do a pretty good job.

Of course, media interest (and the pressure that comes with it) is far demanding in squash than for other sports, and some individuals probably find that reconciling your consicence to represent a country other than the one of your birth is a lot easier when the press isn't camped on your doorstep.

Kevin Pieterson (cricket), Lesley Vainikolo (rugby) and Stephen Cherono (athletics) have had greater pressures placed on them when mulling over a change of nationality than any squash player.

In an increasingly globalised sporting world, old allegiences to your country of birth clearly do not tug as hard as they once did on the heart strings. Where squash is concerned (with its relatively small financial rewards), it is easy to see how a player's ambition to carry on earning a living from the sport they love must sometimes come before patriotism.

Grinham is not alone in embracing the orange banner. New team-mate Annelize Naude decided to change her nationality from South African to Dutch a few years ago.

Vicky Botwright of England takes on Annelize Naude of the Netherlands in the 2006 World Team ChampionshipsOne of the reasons that contributed to Grinham's disgruntlement with Squash Australia and the subsequent change of allegience was a growing unease with her Federation's selection policy, after Melissa Martin was not selected for the Commonwealth Games.

In one light, supporting a compatriot who is being treated unfairly appears a brave stand on a point of principle, but I can't help wondering what Orla Noom or Margriet Huisman (Dutch-born players, one of whom is likely to make way for Grinham in team events in the not-too-distant future) make of their own Federation's selection policy ...

Many column inches have already discussed the merits of letting the likes of Pieterson, Vainikolo, and Cherono take the place of a homegrown athlete - the debate is one for all sport to discuss.

I'm sure the European Teams will be a closely-fought celebration of women's squash in a city that does a great job in facilitating the sport.

The Championships are held at the Frans Otten Stadium from 30th April - 3rd May 2008.

* At the time of writing, Tanya Bailey had just withdrawn from the Euro Teams due to a knee injury, which further boosts the Netherland's team's chances.

Squash City
Women's European Team Squash Championships 2008
Squashtalk article about the Liz Irving Center of Excellence

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