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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