Thursday 1 December 2011

World Series Finals 2011: coda

Entering Queen'sBetter late than never :) ...

The recent news that the delayed final of the World Series Squash Finals 2011 will not be played brought a disappointing closure to the showpiece PSA tournament.

Nick Matthew and Amr Shabana were due to contest the trophy match at the beginning of the year. It promised a fitting climax to, arguably, the best squash spectacle ever staged in the capital ...

The final was cancelled back in January after high winds threatened to lift the huge temporary structure from its moorings. The smattering of desperately-needed UK press coverage that followed focussed almost entirely on the cancellation rather than on the ground-breaking presentation of the event itself. Squashblogger was there on semis night, and can vouch for the organisers' predicament; the weather was truly exceptional towards the end of the week, and it really was simply bad luck.

Also a huge shame. The PSA, led by Ziad Al-Turki, had reportedly pumped $1m into the tournament, the men's tour finale, in its second year after moving to Queens' Club from its former home behind Liverpool Street. Walking down Palliser Road last year I was directed beyond the tennis courts to an hangar behind the clubhouse. This time a giant, spotlighted inflatable - like a fat pink slab of marshmellow (see pic) - had parked itself infront of the building, screaming that, for a week at least, Queens was all about squash.

I estimated the venue's capacity at 400, and squeezing into my backwall seat I reckoned it 85% full – and that was just for the first women's exhibition. The logo of the high-end shirt brand Thomas Pink was plastered everywhere (was there a sponsor last year?) - neatly matching the colour of the spotlight gels: an early indication that the design of the event as a holistic spectator experience had been given real thought.

BBC commentator Jake Humphry (the F1 guy) and Sky presenter Vicky Gomersall were our hosts. Their professional objectivity, coupled with the fact that they too were experiencing something new, helped highlight the unique skills and abilities required of the sport: vital for attracting and retaining new spectators outside of the squash community. Both seemed genuinely impressed by the whole thing, not least the fitness, skills and affability of the players. Humphry, an increasingly high-profle figure in BBC Sport, was even tweeting nice things about the tournament over the week. I wouldn't want to speculate on his fee, but with well over a quarter of a million Twitter followers, this was publicity the sport has struggled for so long to buy.

To the squash itself. In the first warm-up a relaxed Jenny Duncalf tossed out enough snippets of quality to remind anyone everyone she's graduated to the big league. I'd only seen her opponent, Camile Serme, on video before, and was taller than expected, relying on her reach to volley kills from the T. Duncalf quickly got wise and by the third  was pushing her around like nobody's business, Serme repeatedly performing the splits in retrieval.

The crowd were also getting stuck in, buoyed by the lights, music and familiar BBC/Sky faces. The whole mise-en-scene seemed calculated to attract a younger crowd, and if this was not really reflected in the punters (a Canary Wharf-esque mix of smartly dressed professionals – including plenty of women – and your squash die-hards), the spirit was certainly rubbing off. The whole thing looked great, from the instant TV replays (still not a given at pro events) to the nut-brown, Battersea-loft-apartment court floor.

A tired tin from Serme gave Duncalf the match 11/8, 11/13/ 11-7. “Great setting!” Jenny gushed afterwards, "love the colour scheme!"

The next thing that the organisers got right: the between-game entertainment. At many events a couple of court cleaners do their thing whilst everyone decamps to the bar. Canary Wharf has been the most inventive in plugging this gap, trying all kinds of stuff to keep people in their seats (I particularly enjoyed the heart monitors linked up to players a couple of years back). It's not a problem unique to squash: half-time dancers/bands at football matches are largely ignored. As are the presentation ceremonies after finals.

Squash is different in that the majority of the audience are much closer to the action; there is also a ready-made 'stage' that offers little stimulus when empty.

Deciding how to fill it is only half the problem. How do you also manage a refreshment break and get people swiftly back in their seats?

Tonight's entertainment was street dance troope Zoonation. Something different, announced as 'the next part of the evening' rather than 'something to watch while you're having a break'. The crowd seemed to genuinely enjoy it, and it provided a subtle but effective way of retaining the momentum of the evening.

Some other 'behind the scenes' touches that gave the event that extra quality: live coverage transmitted direct to the press room, allowing journalists to file copy while keeping up with the action; buzzing and attentive PRs determined to keep everyone happy and ensuring a convivial atmosphere (a welcome change to the glowering security guys of last year)

More banging music heralded the second women's match between Vanessa Atkinson and Laura Massaro. This lacked the quality of Duncalf/Serme, but was a great advert in front of the BBC/Sky bods for free-flowing, fewer-lets PAR squash. Atkinson was always half a step behind in the first, with that scampering run of hers, losing it 7-11. She fared better in the next, lobbing from front-court with a straight backhand to get herself out of trouble.

Massaro's greater fitness was always going to be the deciding factor, however, and she secured the tie after a wonderful match-point rally.

Great, then, to see professional women's squash in London. It's another one of my bugbears that the WISPA tour never descends on the capital for showpiece events (small tournaments like the London Coronation Open, with limited seating and no all-glass showcourts, can't generate public interest). Happily two developments might go some way to remedying this: the administrative headquarters of WISPA is now based at Queen's Club, and this year's World Squash Day had increased female participation as its theme.*

For the men's semi between James Willstrop and Nick Matthew I plugged in the free radio ear-piece to find Barringtons Junior and Senior at the mic. Jonah described the surroundings as "stupendous", and with the forthcoming Olympic bid in mind it does appear that every effort is now being made to benchmark standards of event presentation to a level that would appeal to IOC officials.

Errors from Willstrop kindled early frustration, and it was apparent during the first game it was not going to be his day.

Four or five years ago it seemed that Willstrop would dominate the English game for the foreseeable future, though Matthew's rise to number 1 in the world has been built in part on a phenomenal run of success against his England team mate. This was Matthew's eleventh win in a row, in a run that stretches back to 2007. The final score was 11-4,11-6, 11-8 - rather an anti-climax given the majesty of the surroundings.

"My body just wasn't interested," said a demoralised Willstrop afterwards.

Amr Shabana dispatched a slightly injured Ramy Ashour 4-11, 5-11, 5-11 in just 27 minutes to set up the final against Matthew. Shabana still hasn't won a tournament in England, and the cancellation of the final on the Saturday meant that he wouldn't get the chance to take on the World Champion.

They and the organisers deserved better.

* Though it has just been announced that there will be a parallel WISPA event at the same event in January 2012. Hurray!

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Wednesday 16 November 2011

Why isn't Nick Matthew a national hero? So bemoans Frank Keating in today's Guardian.

The article discusses the lack of coverage of the Yorkshireman's second World Open victory, as well as the sport's strong claim for Olympic recognition.

Also a couple of great anecdotes in there about finding Jonah Barrington working in a 60s bistro and reporting on squash in 1970s Pakistan ...

Scroll down to the comments too, where former England cricketer Mike Selvey reminisces about an ill-judged squash game involving a certain Mike Gatting ...

World champion Nick Matthew presses the case for squash

Read more ...

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Permanent BBC legacy for minority sports?

Guardian article UTV Media - owner of TalkSport - has challenged the BBC to create a permanent Olympic legacy for minority sports by giving them more airtime.

But without Olympic status, squash might not get a look-in ...

The BBC has announced plans for a "pop-up" digital radio station - BBC5 Live Olympics Extra - to broadcast minority sports during the 2012 Games.

But UTV Media have challenged the BBC to make more space for minority sports after 2012.

A number of sports have already backed UTV's call, asking the BBC to "codify (their) radio's responsibility to sport in all its guises, not just popular sports such as Premier League football".

These include the Angling Trust. As far as I'm aware fishing is not an Olympic sport*, which suggests that the 'legacy' might be broadened to benefit those sports which haven't reached that hallowed status.

Time for the WSF to add their support?

BBC should do more for minority sports, says rival

* Though (nearly) was in 1900!

Read more ...

Saturday 3 September 2011

World Squash Day 2011

Growing female participation is the focus of this year's World Squash Day, which will take place on Saturday 5th November.

The organisers usually try to theme the event or tie it in with some other campaign, and this year they've wisely given themselves the best shot at decent press coverage by holding it on Women's World Open finals day ...

WSF Chief Executive Andrew Shelley said in support of the initiative:

"Female participation is a very important ingredient for every sport and squash is no exception. Squash has a long and varied history of junior and adult female participation and indeed competition dating back more than 100 years, and is such an ideal sport for women and girls who want to have fun and keep fit."

As a former successful head of WISPA (the women's tour body) Shelley should have plenty of ideas about how to exploit the best assets of the elite game to boost grassroots participation.

The World Squash Day website will feature events taking place around the world (though at the time of writing it needs more work!), so if you're planning something at your club please upload your details/photos.

And this week's caption competition ...

Dread Sport Series posterSpeaking of promoting the women's game ... I notice the Dread Sports Series tournament is currently taking place in Washington DC. You can see the poster here (left).

Pretty dramatic, don't you think?

More tasteful than the 2007 Toronto Open effort, (below left), artwork I doubt Shelley and the rest of the WSD organisers will be pulling out on November 5th.

I found some follow up on this image on an advertising website: arguments for and against etc. - you can read the sweaty-palmed comments here.

You can find links to previous World Squash Days in my preview articles:

World Squash Day 2009
World Squash Day 2008
World Squash Day 2007

World Squash Day 2011

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Monday 15 August 2011

Teach First squash event: 10th September 2011

On September 10th 2011 Teach First is hosting a charity squash event at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, London.

Entrants will get the chance to play their squash heroes at the prestigious club, with their entry money going to help disadvantaged youngsters ...

Teach First is an independent charity that places graduates who would not normally consider a career in teaching in challenging schools. All monies raised on the day will go towards supporting this work.

Entry to the tournament costs just £200 per player (£175 'early bird' discount applies if you book your place before 10 August.) If your company will match your donation the price drops to £150 per player, and members of Royal Automobile Club can enjoy the day for just £100 per player.

The cost of a £100 ticket could cover the costs for Teach First to mentor a gifted student in a school in challenging circumstances for two terms.

The cost of a £200 ticket could cover the costs for Teach First to select an outstanding graduate to teach in a school in challenging circumstances for a minimum of two years.

The exclusive tournament entry pass includes the following:

* A place in both the singles and doubles championship tournament
* A place in the 'Beat the Pro' competition
* Lunch in the Club's lounge and refreshments throughout the day
* Post tournament drinks reception and a Q&A insight session with your squash heroes.

To sign up for the event visit:

Read more ...