Friday 27 March 2009

BBC article singles out squash as most worthy

BBC srticleIn a month where two showpiece squash tournaments held in London have worn their Olympic aspirations on their sleeves, a new article on the BBC Sport website sings squash's praises as a 2016 hopeful.

The blog written by Matt Slater, who is responsible for Olympics-related content, weighs up the contenders for October's vote in Copenhagen before concluding that squash has the greatest claim for Olympic status ...

Slater was supportive of the bid in a previous article from 2007.

Welcome coverage of our sport's bid just at the right time.

Seven sports seek Olympic love

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Thursday 26 March 2009

Super Series Finals 2009

Walking into Queen's Club, Chelsea, LondonWatching Robert Edwards compere a squash tournament always reminds me of a Catholic wedding I once went to: a somewhat fussy ceremony spun out over a couple of hours, presided over by a man who knew what was best.

I thought the veteran 'Voice of Squash' had retired, but '21st Century Squash' is clearly short of talent of Edwards' magnitude ...

I came to Queen's Club on the last night agnostic to the claims that the event would herald the new dawn squash has been waiting for.

Happily, I am pleased to report that Mr Edwards earned his fee here at this year's Super Series Finals, investing the new venue and the presence of a HRH with a greater sense of occasion than Broadgate ever received. His style may not be to everyone's taste, but it felt right on this night, in these hallowed surroundings.

The clubhouse at Queen's ClubWas this also because we were in posh Kensington rather than stuck behind an All Bar One in Liverpool Street? Or was it down to the new marketing and PR that were brought in by Ziad Al-Turki?

The congregation at the last night night of this year's Super Series Finals was a broader church than we're used to seeing at this annual event, with the blue blazers of Queen's Club replacing City pinstripes.

The organisers had also pulled off a coup in getting HRH The Duchess of Gloucester to attend the final night.

The venue itself was a couple of indoor tennis courts modified into the usual iSport set-up, with a large backwall seating area and two sidewall areas with round tables and unreserved seating. This is where I sat, after registering with the helpful iSport and Greenspace (the brand consultancy brought in by Ziad Al-Turki) staff.

Backwall spectators - a full houseI found my way to these seats after one of the (contracted out?) security guys bluntly told me, arms folded, when I potitely enquired about a media seating area, that the seats were all sold-out. Fair enough, but the event could have done without their glowering at the crowd as if it was a football terrace.

The squash

Karim Darwish treated his third place play-off against Shabana with his serious face on, and we weren't going to see the repeated boast-and-lob showmanship that this precursor to the final has prompted in previous years.

Oh well - he is currently the best player on the planet, and we can't begrudge him from wanting to win everything.

Amr didn't appear too fussed about the $14,250 prize money on offer this evening, and after plugging away at Darwish finally gave up the ghost in the third to lose 11/8, 11/9, 11/5. I wonder if he'll be more motivated for Canary Wharf ...


Karim Darwish sits beneath one of the large banners during his 3rd/4th place play-off against Amr ShabanaWhat we could have done with after what felt like somewhat of a practice-match was a good knock-around doubles exhibition. Where was John White when you needed him?

Always a favourite at this event and others in the UK, I have fond memories of him entertaining the crowd not only through his natural instinct as a player in competition, but also in various exhibitions at big events, and we could have done with him here to get the crowd going at half-time.

I notice that doubles exhibitions have become unfashionable in recent years at tournaments in the UK. It would be sad if this was part of a wider drive to demonstrate professionalism in the run up to the 2016 vote. At some events the time when the crowd has been most engaged or captivated with the players is during a four-man lark around, and it's important to show that the game is also a lot of fun too.

I hate to see any empty court that usually hastens the natural instincts of spectators to toddle off to the bar. Perhaps if the court were filled in 'transtition' periods if might give the opportunity to demonstrate what else squash has to offer, such as junior talent or some of the WISPA pros (rarely seen in London).

Bet on the GG

If Greg Gaultier continues to demonstrate the form that was on display tonight, he is going to be a favourite for Canary Wharf - and may soon challenge the top two Egyptians for the number one spot.

Greg Gaultier receives words of advice from his coach during the final against Thierry LincouStrangely the mood of evening actually lightened during the final, as the Queen's crowd unfamiliar with Gaultier's gesticulating started to warm to him (though I did nearly have to cover my eyes as he stepped out of court to remonstrate with the officals right in front of the Duchess's lap).

Lincou still conducts himself on court with the professionlism that has characterised his career, but while he appeared tonight as alert and focussed as ever, he is not quite as quick as he was, and was always half a pace behind his younger countryman tonight who was poised on his shoulder throughout.

Gaultier took control from the beginning, relentlessly putting Lincou to the back of the court before dropping with consistent accuracy. Former World Champion Lincou really did not look like he wanted to spend the whole night banished to the back wall, and raised his game in the second to start imposing some control on rallies.

With the match levelled at 1-1, Gaultier was spoiling for a fight with the officials. Given that this event and Canary Wharf are stated showpieces for the sport in its Olympic bid (the matches this evening were filmed from a number of different angles), this would not have gone down very well, but either due to Gaultier'a self-restraint or the strong words from the officials, a lid was kept on things.

Gaultier lifts the trophey, presented by HRH the Duchess of GloucesterIt was during the assessment of the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester that is was noted by the IOC that squash has a problem with players too easily remonstrating with officals. It is all too easy to blame the player in these situations, but clearly the officals need to be held accountable too. In the Shabana v Darwish game earlier in the evening there was at least one occasion when both players had exited the court door to tell the officals what the decision was before any decision had been made.

This would not happen in tennis, and the Queen's Club members watching tonight would have noted this difference.

Gaultier finally took the title for the second year running 11/6, 8/11, 11/5, 11/5 (63m) after re-imposing himself in the third. It had not been a vintage evening's squash, but the best player over the week had come out on top. Gaultier's exhuberance may try one's patience during play, but it makes him a great speaker when he wins. He had the crowd in fits and even managed to sneak peck on each royal cheek (is that allowed?!)

Really pleased as well to see that people sat in their seats at the end to see the presentation and hear the interviews - something that rarely happens. Maybe this was out of respect for our VIP (and the Duchess) - Mr Edwards was certainly very persuasive in preventing people from going home early.

Back next year?

If the Queen's Club is to hold this tournament in subsequent years I can see it turning into a kind of Lord's of squash, contrasting with the more lively Edgbaston of the Canary Wharf event (watch the Ashes crowds this summer and you'll see what I mean!).

The sport needs both, and there is room for provision to be made to further foster inclusion for even more divergent audiences. This week's experiment at Queen's Club appeared to be a success, but there will be some who say that squash needs to break away from the private members clubs of old.

The fact is that squash cannot afford to choose its audience, and it needs the support, patronage, and facilities of places such as Queen's. It also needs to attract the working class kid in east London, and maybe some of the 'urban' initiatives (that seek to change squash's image as well as where it is played) are the way to go.

The portability of the sport is a huge advantage in trying to appeal to these different audiences, and other changes such as the re-organisation of the PSA tour to move region-by-region (as suggested by Mr Al-Turki) would certainly help put the sport on people's radars for longer concentrated periods.

Had I just witnessed '21st Century Squash'? Not sure about that. The design of the advertising, marketing and PR materials (all contributing to the brand) looked very good, particularly some of the merchandise that was given out (there was a very nice fold-out map of London squash clubs).

To some extent this modern, minimalist design was maybe slightly divergent from the austere feel of the Queen's Club, and would have contributed to a greater overall impression at a more left-field venue. But these materials were well produced, and some thinking had obviously gone into them.

National media coverage - the efforts of Rod Gilmour at the Telegraph aside - was sadly again almost non-existent.
Bottom: Gaultier wins for a second year

In terms of the more practical elements of the event: the format of the evening was pretty much similar to the British Nationals, the World Open or many other of the pro events I have attended over the past years. Loud music pumped out, nice introductions for the players, interviews afterwards.

A feature that was here at Queen's but is not always seen at big events are the large video replay screens. These worked very well here tonight, with the crowd fixated on them between points. These should now become a benchmark standard feature, but organisers must ensure that the players or spectators do not manipulate the officals into using them to make decisions. The position of the officals in the crowd in squash make this an awkward possibility.

This was perhaps not the most entertaining Super Series finals night that I have been to, but it was certainly a step up a level to further cement itself as a 'big tournament' (a rather elusive phrase - much like a 'big club' in football - not necessarily down to the money floating around or the number of people who go and watch it).

It never really felt like this down in the tent at Broadgate.

At the end of the day maybe there is only so much you can do with a bunch of people sitting watching two guys in a goldfish bowl. Maybe the true value of '21st Century Squash' is the plurality of experience that different squash venues can offer when they all adopt a benchmark for marketing, technology, design and all the other little things that go into creating a spectator experience.

The true value of the game as a spectator sport competing for fans might only be realised if a punter can watch the game in a city square one week and on a beach the next.

Super Series Finals 2009

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Wednesday 25 March 2009

Innovative coverage being forged at the 'Wharf

Great to see intelligent questions being put to the players in the videos being put out on the Canary Wharf website and YouTube.

Deepening the coverage of a current event via prompt video postings can enrich a tournament - especially for those squash fans who cannot attend ...

Videoing players is not in itself new or innovative (though there is certainly room for innovation where filming play is concerned): getting material out and up on the web quickly while retaining a level of quality is the key, and YouTube has certainly helped here.

Above: Alan Thatcher interviewing Tom Richards after his loss to Palmer. Richards' biggest stage to date? We've followed his career on squashblog for a while now ...

Too many video interviews to feature here - click here to see 'em all.

Canary Wharf Classic 2009

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Monday 23 March 2009

Men in Docklands for second London showcase

Canary Wharf Classic 2009The London sojourn for the men's tour reaches a climax this week with the Canary Wharf Classic (23-27 March).

Now in its 6th year, the docklands event is loved by players and spectators alike for its infectious atmosphere and East Wintergarden location.

Following the launch of '21st Century Squash' at last week's Super Series Finals (report to follow very soon!), what can we expect from the Eventis team ...?

Like the Super Series event last week at Queen's Club, Canary Wharf is being pitched as an Olympic showcase before October's vote for which sports should be included in the 2016 Games. The Super Series was filmed for promotional reasons: let's hope Canary Wharf receives the same treatment.

The Super Series was seen by many in the squash community as a 're-launch' of the men's tour as a product. It will be interesting to compare these well-ran events - always held very close to each other - to try and establish what should be the new benchmark standards for putting on professional squash tournaments.

As part of the event, schoolchildren from Mayflower Primary School have been invited to the Tuesday session after attending a training session with Peter Nicol (see the link for an encouraging comment from London Mayor Boris Johnson).

James Willstop will be looking to put down an early market in the tournament in an event that he has almost made his own (he has won it three times). He faces Alister Walker in the first round, who scored the best win of his career here last year, beating Gaultier at the same stage.

The recent form of Nick Matthew (not at Queen's) means that he will be fresh to challenge top seed Amr Shabana. The former World Champion has never won a major tournament here.

Maybe as the only one of the top-three Egyptians playing here he's out to prove a point this time ...

Canary Wharf Classic 2009

Canary Wharf Classic 2008
Canary Wharf Classic 2007

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Thursday 19 March 2009

Swimming against the tide

Luton Dunstable Squash ClubWe’ve often commented on court closures and other negative stories associated with squash at a regional/local level, but recently we’ve been contacted by Paul Main, Chairman of Luton Dunstable Squash Club, which is attempting to swim against the tide and promote participation in squash …

Plus: Win the change to play Peter Nicol!

Paul writes:

"A few years ago Dunstable Leisure Centre had four courts and a vibrant club attached to it, but when the council handed the running of the centre over to private leisure centre management company, a decision was taken to close two, turning them into gym style studios – familiar story?

The club took the radical decision to relocate its playing base to a nearby facility run by Riley’s called Club Snooker and Squash in Luton which had a sorely underused seven courts. Once the initial bedding-in period had been completed under the sterling work of long standing Secretary Paul White, the Committee looked at its playing base and saw problems ahead. With what little junior coaching being delivered in admirable fashion by the lone Level 2 coach David Merrell - who was approaching retirement age - and the average age of active players being in excess of 40, it was clear that without action the club would be extinct in the not too distant future.

Two main objectives were identified just over a year ago

1. To increase junior participation
2. To increase adult membership.

The Committee agreed that it needed new coaches, and in December 2008 two members gained their Level 1 coaching qualification and now help David out on junior coaching nights that have seen an increase in the numbers attending as word has slowly spread.

The Committee set about working with the local county sports partnership and has just been given the green light to take Mini-Squash into local schools starting in the autumn term.

As far as increasing adult membership, the Committee sought to become a partner, again with the local sports partnership, in their very popular “Get Back Into” programme - a government funded scheme aimed at getting adults back into sport. Once again, the sport of squash was accepted, with Dunstable Squash Club being asked to deliver a seven-week programme.

The club also recently created a website to establish its first web presence. As part of that decision, the name and narrative for the site deliberately incorporated Luton so that the reality of the club was better reflected and a brand adopted.

Working with England Squash, the club last week achieved Silver Clubmark status - thus acknowledging their efforts - but also increasing funding opportunities for the future.

The final piece in the jigsaw in terms of promotion was the decision to organise a flagship event. That has been achieved with Peter Nicol agreeing to come along and play the winner of an open competition (click here for more details).”

Encouraging to see a club working hard to both promote itself and the sport; we wish them well in their efforts.

In our second year round-up we promised to look more at the efforts of national governing bodies in 2009, so anyone out there who has any good stories about efforts made by individuals clubs and/or their experience in working with regional or national bodies, please send them on.

Luton Dunstable Squash Club,

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Wednesday 11 March 2009

'21st Century Squash' to be unveiled at Super Series

ATCO Super Series Finals 2009The marketing engine for this weekend's start of the ATCO Super Series Finals 2009 is in top gear, with effectively a new era for the men's tour being launched.

The Finals this year are taking place at Queen's Club, Chelsea, in London, having moved from their Broadgate home. But what do the respondents to our poll think about the upcoming event (14-17 March)?

We asked visitors to the site whether they thought that the move to Queen's Club would be a good thing for the tournament. Results (below) show a positive, but guarded, welcome for the move, with the conclusion to be drawn that we'll have to "wait and see".

Poll resultsOf course, it's not just about the change of venue. Much has been made in the squash press of the changes at the top of the PSA and the involvement of ATCO President Ziad Al-Turki in the re-organisation of the Super Series and the future of the men's tour.

The press release that this week claims that we are entering the era of '21st Century Squash'. Sounds like good news as elements of tournament organisation are in need of modernisation, and there are great opportunities for creative minds to update the spectator experience of professional squash. The press release goes on to explain:

"It will also be the first major event since the appointment of branding agency Greenspace to make the sport even more appealing to a younger, wider audience. The agency has promised to overhaul almost every aspect of the sport, including court design and player uniforms."

It is also great to see that the event is "poised to set new records for ticket sales" - an indication that ticket sales for the event have been pushed harder than ever before (we look forward to seeing the size of the crowd).

The organisers are making big claims - it will be a step forward for the game as a spectator sport in the UK if they can live up to the hype. Can the Super Series challenge Canary Wharf as the best live squash experience in this country?

We'll find out next week ...

ATCO Super Series Finals 2009 - buy tickets

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Friday 6 March 2009

Foxy rebrand for English Squash (& Racketball)

New England Squash and Racketball logoMore fruits of England Squash's decision to invest in marketing its product are beginning to emerge, with the rebranding of the organisation and the unveiling of a new logo ...

ES have commissioned professional help from an agency, Fudge Studios, as part of the process. With squash historically pretty dire at marketing itself, this seems like a worthwhile investment.

The decision to market squash together with racketball is explained by ES in their unveiling to the press:

"Our vision is to increase the popularity and profile of both sports, continue to raise levels of success at international level and to run the sports according to the highest standards of governance, management and ethics. In order to achieve this we felt that the organisation needed a new identity, one that truly represented our aspirations to be modern, vibrant, and professional."

First impressions are always strong when an organisation revels a new logo (remember this?). The WSF has also had a go in recent times.

ES also explain the thinking behind the design of their badge (and forthcoming website):

"Both the logo and website have been designed to convey the sports of squash and racketball as vibrant, dynamic, modern and professional, and to persuade more people to get on court to try our great sports."

Interesting to see that a governing body has taken the step of removing a recognisable squash ball from their branding (though now that racketball comes as part of the package this may have been a deciding factor). The squash ball naturally lends itself to becoming a logo for the sport, and most websites (we hold our hands up!) incorporate it. It seems a small point, but moving away from this is a step in the right direction.

We can't help see a certain well-known web browser in those reddy-brown swirls, but I doubt that will be the first thought of many. It certainly carries the hallmark of being thought about in detail - rather than some we could mention.

It is somewhat unfair to judge logos decontextualised - we'll have to wait to see England Squash & Racketball (do we now have to write that every time .. seems a bit of a mouthful)'s new website and other marketing materials to see how it beds down into the wider campaign. Signs and their meaning change over time, don't cha know?

The real success behind the rebrand, of course, will be a greater interest in squash and racketball in England. I want to see ES (or ES&R) on the walls of my leisure centre. So let's leave the final words to them as they describe how they'll do this:

"Over the coming months and years we will be working closely with clubs, leisure centres, universities and workplaces to help introduce thousands of new players, coaches, and volunteers to the sports, and key to this is creating a vibrant club scene.

Squash will continue to be at the heart of our activity but we feel strongly that racketball will help bring new people to squash courts. Squash facilities that have embraced both sports are going from strength to strength, with busy courts and increased membership numbers. Our aim is to help all clubs achieve this success."

England Squash and Racketball

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Wednesday 4 March 2009

Nick and Jenny in the mirror

We unfortunately couldn't make the recent British Nationals to see Jenny Duncalf and Nick Matthew take the titles for the second time each. Looking over the recent success of both players away from domestic competition - and reviewing their careers to date - it struck me that they share a symmetry ...

Both had assumed a solid berth around 5/6 in the world, before falling back slightly in 2007. Both have taken two National titles, maybe slightly later than one might have predicated. Both are in or approaching their late-20s. Both have made advances over the past year that imply that greater things are to come.

Nick's recent narrow five-game loss to World Champion Ramy Ashour in the Davenport North American Open shows that he fears no-one (great pics here btw). If his body continues to hold up he can get amongst the Egyptians in the two big London events later this month.

Duncalf's win over - again! - Rachael Grinham in December's Sharm El Sheikh Open again underlines that she may be approaching her peak years. Of all the players behind Nicol David and the Grinham sisters, who have occupied the top three ranking places for a good while now, it is Jenny whom appears to be on the steepest upwards curve.

Duncalf has been the elder Grinham's bete noir in recent years, most notably losing to her at last year's British Open in Liverpool - one of the English player's best wins to date.

Jenny is at present competing for the current Kuala Lumpur title (at the quarter final stage as I write). If she were to win, Nick will be hoping that the symmetry of their careers rubs off at least to the end of March, as he attempts to continue his strong run at Canary Wharf and Queen's Club.

Nick Matthew

Born: 25 July 1980
Age: 28
Joined PSA: 1997
Current World Ranking: 5 (March 2009)
Highest World Ranking: 5 (October 2004)
Current National Ranking: 2
Highest National Ranking: 1 (January 2007)

Jenny Duncalf

Born: 10 November 1982
Age: 26
Joined WISPA: 1998
Current World Ranking: 5 (March 2009)
Highest World Ranking: 5 (August 2008)
Current National Ranking: 3
Highest National Ranking: 2 (July 2007)

Review the action from the 2009 British Nationals here.

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