Saturday 27 December 2008

Happy New Year from squashblog

Happy New Year!Last post of the year before disappearing until mid-January. So (a belated ) Happy Christmas and Happy New Year!

Thanks to everyone who has supported the site this year: let's keep the debate going in 2009.

Things I wanted to write about at length this year but ran out of time ...

1. Player of the Year: For me this had to be Karim Darwish (bottom), who stepped out of Shabana and Ashour's shadows to win in Qatar and Saudi, and a runner-up in the Manchester World Open.

It seems a little strange to overlook Ramy's remarkable achievement in winning the World title, but the velocity of his rise made it kind of inevitable sooner or later (maybe for him the achievement will not be 'when' but 'how many'). Karim's ascendancy to his highest ranking of number 2 in the PSA rankings appears to have more in common with Shabana's career; his elder countryman began his domination at roughly the same age Darwish is now, after adding a missing mental component to complement his shot-making talent.

Darwish spoke after Qatar about 'playing to win rather than just playing': he has clearly also worked on the mental aspect of his game, and it's great to see a player who may have been thought of as a 'nearly-man' (that World Junior title seems a long time ago now) prove his doubters wrong though patience and application.

2. The scoring debate/row/storm/scandal: Yes, it really was called all these things in various parts of the squash media. I felt this kind of got buried under the World Open coverage - though hats off to Ian McKenzie for conducting something like a proper debate at the Squash Player site.

The bigger story here is not in the scoring change to PAR itself (which I happen to agree for the good of the professional game), but in the decision-making process. As Tom Cruise (nearly) said: show me the mandate!

Karim Dariwhs3. Olympic Task Force: some positive news about squash's Olympic bid probably passed many of you by (nearly me included) as it slipped out just before Christmas. It appears that a sense of urgency has finally hit the WSF with less than a year to go before the IOC vote on Olympic inclusion, and an 'Olympic Task Force' is being set up which, amongst other things, will engage with new media "by using the internet to approach all those Squash players and enthusiasts worldwide who would like to support the campaign".

After assuming that the governing body had taken the lower-key route that I suggested when things were looking dicey , does this now mean that things are swinging the other way? Let's judge when we see that internet campaign - and the other initiatives - emerge. Happy to help!

Read the WSF press release here.

4. Squash websites: yo-yoing up and down like the FTSE-100. What's going on? Does squash get the media it deserves?

5. The PSA board:
now composed of a good mix of voices that will hopefully bring objectivity and new ideas to the development of the men's tour. Let's hope this is matched by representative, transparent decision making over the next year as the organisation enters a new era.

6. Women's tournaments in London:
I'm being selfish here. While it was great to see the best women players in action in Manchester at the Worlds, they surely deserve a platform in the capital. There's nothing like Canary Wharf or the Super Series for the WISPA pros, and looking back over event calendars I can't find the last time a prestige-venue women's tournament was held in London - and that's where their governing body is based! Why?

I'll try and revisit most of these in the New Year. In the meantime, keep sending in your comments, thoughts, ideas etc.

Happy 2009!

Read more ...

Monday 15 December 2008

Alan would approve

The victorious Egyptian teamAlan Hansen would surely nod sagely in appreciation of the 'strength in depth' of Egyptian men's squash.

But after their recent win in the World Team Championships, I reckon he might extend his favourite epithet to the women too.

Second seeds and in their second consecutive final, but did anyone really see it coming? And what about my premature suggestion that the Netherlands might be right up there? ...

The future is obviously not quite orange, as the Egyptian trio despensed with the Dutch girls with little difficulty in the quarter-finals.

I suggested in that previous article that when Natalie Grinham becomes eligible to represent the Netherlands that they might challenge for this title - it will be interesting to see whether her sister joins her one day.

Well done to the Aussie girls, btw, who put up a decent fight against Malaysia and beat the Dutch in a minor-placings play-off. The Australian team is weakened since the Grinham sisters departed, and Donna Urquhart, Kasey Brown and Lisa Camilleri vindicated their selection (is there any team game that Australia aren't any good at?).

England pretty much sailed through to the final - my tip for dark horses New Zealand offering little resistance in the semis. So much for another of my predictions!

The big unknown was always going to be Malaysia and Egypt after they were drawn together. Malaysia's world number one Nicol David hasn't lost in this event since 2004, and she won her second rubber against Egyptian number one Omneya Abdel Kawy after Engy Kheirallah had taken the first,

The decider saw Raneem El Weleily take on Malaysian Delia Arnold. The 19-year-old from Alexandria took the first two games before dropping the third, only to come back to win 11-3, 11-6, 10-12, 11-9.

'A packed crowd of partisan fans

Alison Waters v Engy Kheirallah in the finalAccording to the WSF press release the final was played in front of "a packed crowd of partisan fans" - given the apparently thrilling climax to the last rubber, it must have been a crazy atmosphere.

How wonderful if must be to watch live professional squash in Egypt right now. Video footage rarely gives a good impression of the atmosphere at a live squash game, and for now we'll just have to read about it.

If only some of that atmosphere translated to events over here in Britain, which are often marked by a distinctly British reserve (for what women's tournaments there are over here - more on that another time ...)

Anyway, the result came down to the last few points of the last rubber. Engy Kheirallah was pitted against Alison Waters, and after two games all, the last game went right down to the last, as the press release describes:

"(But) the 27-year-old Egyptian won the point on a stroke, before moving on to her own match-ball at 11-10 - which she won when a ball off the back wall from Waters failed to reach the front wall."

The Egyptian took the match - and won the title for her country - 4-11, 11-9, 9-11, 11-0, 12-10. Apparently there was "immediate pandemonium around the glistening court as Egyptians jumped up and down, screaming with joy". More of that over here please!

It would be great to find out how many spectators attended the event, as would it be to find how many watched it on TV. As I noted in the previous article on the event, the tournament was available to watch for free on 247.TV.

Anyone with any numbers - or any reports on the quality of the streaming footage - please send then on ...

Read more ...

Thursday 11 December 2008

"Squash makes a better world"? Hmm ...

TreeThe December 2008 edition of International Squash Magazine dropped through my letter box last week. With great photos but little beyond a narrative view of what's happened recently in the squash world, I rarely give it much more than a cursory glance.

But an article featured on the front cover - 'Saudi Arabia - Wbere Squash Makes a Better World' - had me turning straight to page 9.

I could see the point of the piece, but some of it sat rather uncomfortably ...

The article, written by Richard Eaton, concerns the current development of the game in Saudi, and focuses in particular on the Saudi International, which Eaton writes was:

"... created with the twin aim of transforming the lot of the professional player and of altering perceptions of Saudi Arabia".

The article goes on:

"The tournament began to have a long-term public relations effect for Saudi Arabia. Players and people who came to Saudi told family and friends about it. Players were taken to museums to understand something about the country's history. The tournament hosted a traditional night. And last year some players stayed on after the tournament enjoying the nearby resort, the great weather and the lovely hospitality".

No doubt all this is true, but there is something uncomfortable about reading of "great weather" and "lovely hospitality" (which journalists and others have very much enjoyed), when the country is frequently cited as having an appaling human rights record.

Describing the fact that squash players were "paying to play" in Saudi as "horrific" is a particularly poor choice of words - there are plenty of other, very real, horrors happening every day in the country.

The ethical questions hanging over all this are similar to those that occupied many column inches in the run-up and during the Beijing Olympics: large and tricky issues, which it would be interesting to know the governing bodies' positions on.

Eaton's heart is clearly in the right place, but on this topic I think it pays to choose words very carefully: it's not only squash that seems to be getting a good deal.

December 2008 edition of International Squash Magazine
Human rights in Saudi Arabia

PS - When was the last women's professional squash tournament in Saudi Arabia?

Read more ...

Sunday 7 December 2008

PSA revamp tour for 2010

Golan v Gaultier in the 2008  Internationaux de FranceA while back I wrote an article about the decline of professional squash events in Australia (the country has not staged a major tournament for the past 17 years).

So good news earlier this week, as the PSA's new Chief Exec revealed in an exclusive interview with the Telegraph some of his ambitious plans for the men's tour over the next few years: top-level squash appears to be heading back there ...

The exciting development seeks to align the structure of the PSA world tour by 2010 to something akin to grand-prix format of the Master's series in tennis or F1 motor racing, with the biggest-money events all contributing to the 'race' that will culminate in a Finals event at the end of the season.

The Super Series has offered something similar over the years (though a kind of race-within-a-tour), but what distinguishes the new venture appears to be the higher-profile of the tournaments together with a higher proportion of PSA ranking points linked to performance in each of the top events. The 'final' would therefore prevent a bigger prize and incentive to aim at throughout the season. It would also mean that players would move between tournaments within a region, cutting out unnecessary plane journeys.

Mr Graham explained about the structure:

"Rather than it risking being a shoot-out, where players simply get prize money for winning, I hope we can structure it so that it had some relevance as to who would prevail at the end of the season".

From 2010, the calendar will have 10 distinguishable top-tier tournaments, while prize money will be offer at least $3 million over the year.

Plans are afoot to stage a tournament on Australia's Gold Coast, which would be a welcome step to re-igniting the public's interest in squash in the country and maybe sneaking some back page column inches (apparently they like their sport over there).

The programme also announced that a tournament would be staged in Namibia for the first time. It is yet to be decided whether the British Open will be included in the list.

Mr Graham has set the PSA a target for the PSA to "secure two major events by the end of 2008", and it appears that this goal has been achieved. Great to see explicit, measurable targets being used to develop the game for once - though I'd like to see more detail soon about how exactly the tour in 2010 will distinguish itself from the Super Series competition that has run with a degree of success for 16 years.

Australia & Namibia Declare Intent To Host PSA World Tour Events In 2010

Read more ...

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Women's World Teams - watch for free!

The Women's World Team Championships 2008 is currently at the quarter-final stage in the National Stadium, Cairo.

Though reigning champions England are weakened by the recent retirement of Vicky Botwright, their strength in depth has carried them through to the final stages relatively untroubled.

And if you know where to look, you can watch it for free ...

Live coverage will be available free to squash fans worldwide following an agreement reached between the World Squash Federation and 247.TV.

"This will be the biggest ever live webcast of a squash tournament - and the audience is also expected to break all records for a live audience," said spokesman Peter Wickson. Watch live coverage at 247.TV

During the recent Olympics presentation in Lausanne, the fact that web streaming of squash matches has become commonplace was given as evidence that the sport is embracing new technologies and selling itself to a worldwide audience.

Web streaming of live events has only really started to become mature in the past couple of years as the baseline client technology of regular users has become sophisticated enough to allow let people watch coverage uninterrupted.

I remember a year ago at the British Open it was announced that the public was going to be allowed to watch the Final live for free - a great idea, until the server crashed due to unprecedented demand: a vindication, of sorts!

Here's hoping that viewers of the 247.TV coverage have more luck.

Hong Kong spring upset, New Zealand look strong

Ninth seeds Hong Kong scored a 3/0 win over France to take a place in the latter stages. Hong Kong number two Joey Chan put the outsiders ahead, beating Celia Allamargot 11-8, 11-6, 13-11. It was left to the squad's third string Shin Nga Leung to ensure Hong Kong a place in the top eight - their highest-ever finish in nine appearances since 1990 - when the 19-year-old beat Maud Duplomb 12-10, 11-7, 11-9.

Third seeds New Zealand garner fewer column inches than they should, perhaps because they have been overshadowed by their neighbourly rivals Australia for so many years.

Now what Australia are no longer the force they once were in women's squash (many reasons - see here and here), the main challenge to the English girls comes from Egypt, though the Kiwi trio of Jaclyn Hawkes, Louise Crome and Shelley Kitchen have justified their third-seed status through a number of notable individual performances over the past year, and I would suspect that neither of the top two teams would want to face them in the final.

Women's World Team Championships 2008

Read more ...