I, Robot Squash Coach

A month ago, Scottish Squash confirmed that the game would return without Covid-19 restrictions, in all clubs and facilities in Scotland. Just the time, you might think, for committed players of all ages to refresh their squash skill-sets with a spot of one-to-one coaching.

Fast forward a few weeks and, conveniently, the UK’s National Robotarium presented the world’s first robot squash coach. The robot, developed in collaboration with industry partner RacketWare for on-court use, utilises motion tracking sensors and interfacing technology to collect data from players practising a variety of shots. The data is then analysed in real time and interpreted by the robot in order to communicate with players.

To date, communication strategies have been developed for twelve coaching exercises by observing one-to-one sessions between qualified squash coaches and players. Artificial intelligence software then enables the robot to give instructions about what each solo player should practice next, using hints, tips and positive reinforcement encouragements. Research has shown that solo practice, typically used by professional players and committed amateurs, increases the skill and motivation levels of players of all abilities.

Promisingly, a new National Robotarium facility is due to open in Edinburgh in 2022 housing three distinct research and development areas, including Robotics & Autonomous Systems (RAS), Human & Robotics Interaction (HRI) and High Precision Manufacturing.

In my opinion, the sooner the next generation of squash coach robots can help me perfect a backhand cross-court volley nick off the serve the better.

Sources Thanks to The Engineer, Heriot Watt University, the National Robotarium, YouTube and the BBC.

If it’s 2022, it must be…er…

What a year, eh? No sooner have the 2020 European Football Championships finished than we’re almost halfway through the 2020 Olympic Games. And we’re only halfway through 2020. Er…I mean 2021.

In these uncertain times, it’s difficult enough for squash lovers to keep up to date with what tournaments are scheduled, are being re-scheduled, are ongoing or are being cancelled. So spare a thought for those players, officials, organisers and, increasingly, spectators who are eager to share any live squash experience, whatever the level.

Tournament scheduling continues to be challenging worldwide but, in the UK, three major 2021 tournaments are due to take place in August; the British National Championships, the Manchester Open and the Allam British Open. In contrast, two other August 2021-scheduled tournaments – the re-scheduled 2020 World Masters Squash Championships in Wroclaw and the 2021 World Junior Squash Championships in Cairo – won’t now take place although the latter may yet be re-scheduled to later in 2021.

Amid all this uncertainty comes the timely reminder that the start of the 2022 Commonwealth Games Squash tournament in Birmingham (UK, that is) is now only 12 months away.

Time to believe, perhaps, that when it’s 2022, it really, certainly will be Birmingham.

Sources

Thanks to Birmingham 2022, YouTube and World Squash.

What Squash Leadership Looks Like (2021) – Student Project Video

So, as a squash lover, what the heck have you been doing during the last eighteen months?

Well, here’s at least one thing young squash enthusiast Kiyaan Khalfan has been doing. Kiyaan, a student at the Aga Khan Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, has put together a video exploring the game of squash as part of his studies. Including interviews and demonstrations, the video looks at squash skills, nutrition, fitness and careers. One interviewee, Khaaliqa Nimji, is a professional squash player whose resumé includes playing mixed doubles against Nicol David at the 2010 Commonwealth Games – at the age of 12!

On the leadership front, it’s not difficult to see where student projects such as Kiyaan’s can have a wide influence. Nairobi’s Aga Khan Academy is just one of 17 planned for Africa, The Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia, all areas which could potentially benefit from an injection of squash leadership.

The Academy’s vision is to invest in “education of the highest quality that can prepare young people to lead and enact positive change in the world they inhabit.” The vision focuses on investment not only in teachers but also in “facilities that provide an environment conducive to the less tangible but equally important elements of an education: self-esteem, leadership, tolerance, ethical judgment and moral reasoning.”

And when it comes to inspiration, it’s not just teachers who can help lead the way.

Sources

Thanks to The Aga Khan Academies, Wikipedia, YouTube, World Squash and the BBC.

Brutality

When a former World Number 15 squash player suggests that you check out a video of a memorable PSA Gold tournament rally, you may not be fully aware of the context behind said player’s reason for doing so. Enter Australian PSA TV commentator Johnny Williams who, during a marathon semi-final between Mohamed El Shorbagy and Joel Makin at the recent El Gouna International tournament, drew viewers’ attention to a 2018 encounter between the same two players at the Channel VAS tounament in Surrey, England.

During the 155-stroke rally in question, Makin’s heart rate rose to 195 and stayed there for a considerable part of the 4 minutes and 8 seconds exchange. That El Shorbagy and Makin must have reached a level of fitness which would enable them to sustain such a rally is to state the obvious. But, during his career, Williams himself was a typical product of the famously tough Australian squash endurance training culture, once running 32 consecutive 400 metre circuits (separated by 45 second ‘rests’) with each circuit taking less than 75 seconds.

As always context is key. But one thing seems certain. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the lack of on-court competition for many squash players doesn’t seem to have translated into a lack of endurance fitness. In fact, it may have had the opposite effect.

Sources

Thanks to PSA SquashTV, Wikipedia and YouTube.

The Real Squash Housewives of Beverly Hills

I may have a terrible memory but I’m pretty sure that no squash-themed sex story has ever appeared in the pages of The Hollywood Gossip blog. Yet that’s exactly what happened recently with the revelation that Barstool Sports CEO, Erika Nardini, had been having an affair with a ‘married squash coach’. Not only that, but Nardini’s investment banker husband had signed her up for lessons with said coach, Yvain ‘Swiss’ Badan, as a Christmas present.

By way of context, Barstool Sports is a digital media company that produces blog, video and podcast content focused on sports and pop-culture. In stark contrast, The Hollywood Gossip is a celebrity gossip blog with the latest entertainment news, scandals, fashion, hairstyles, pictures, and videos of ‘your favourite celebrities’; at the time of writing, its coverage focuses on such globally-popular reality TV series as ‘The Bachelor’, ‘Sister Wives’, ‘90 Day Fiancé’, ‘Teen Mom’ and ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’.

Yvain ‘Swiss’ Badan

Any doubts as to the veracity of the ‘married squash coach’ story would appear to have been put to rest by its appearance in Page Six, another US celebrity gossip, er, organ, and, on the other side of the Atlantic, in the well-known UK squash news sources The Daily Mail and The Sun. There is, as one would expect, enough detail in the coverage of the story to form the basis of a screenplay for a straight-to-video film or a teleplay for a squash-themed reality TV series, or both.

If that’s not an opportunity to insert squash into the global consciousness, I don’t know what is.

Note: On reflection, I think it’s possible that the The Hollywood Gossip may well have printed a squash-themed sex story in the past. I may not have recognised it at the time but, then again, I’ve got a terrible memory.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia, The Hollywood Gossip, Page Six, Barstool Sports, The Daily Mail and The Sun.

Crowded House

I recently analysed England’s Sarah-Jane Perry’s dramatic 2020 Black Ball Open victory over Egypt’s Hania El Hammamy in the form of a series of shots into the tin at game- and match-ball. Apart from the squash, the match was notable for the socially-distanced Cairo crowd’s vociferous support for the home favourite. Perry’s vocal support was less vociferous due partly, I suspect, to an absence of English supporters who were not only confined to their homes under the terms of a pandemic lockdown but banned from leaving Blighty to boot.

In my analysis I contrasted the Cairo crowd’s involvement in the match to that of the non socially-distanced Doha crowd at the 2014 World Open Championship final.

In that 90-minute contest, Cairo’s Ramy Ashour, returning from a six-month injury lay-off, defeated Alexandria’s Mohammed El Shorbagy 14-12 in the fifth. The cacophony  generated by the spectators reflected divided Egyptian loyalties, the victory of a much-loved ambassador for the game over an up-and-coming star, and the sheer drama of the match as it unfolded. Let’s hope we’ll all hear something similar again.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia, PSA SquashTV and Youtube.

Squash In A Safe Zone

Around this time of year the attention of squash followers hailing from one of the 6000 islands of the British Isles has traditionally turned to the National Squash Championships. In 2020, the Championships took place in Nottingham but, this year, were replaced by a stripped-down England Squash Championship held at the National Squash Centre in a traditionally cold and wet Manchester.

The four-day event was restricted to senior men’s and women’s tournaments, participation in which was limited to players on the basis of their individual need to comply with the Covid-19 guidelines of the national jurisdictions of their places of residence. The Championships were also re-structured, each tournament consisting of group matches followed by semi-finals, fifth / six and third / fourth place play-offs and a final.

The men’s tournament was won by Declan James who overcame George Parker 3-1 in 64 minutes. In the women’s tournament, current Black Ball Open champion Sarah-Jane Perry beat the unseeded Georgina Kennedy 3-0 in 23 minutes. Both beaten finalists were winners of the England Squash Challenge tournaments held at the same venue in November when, for the record, it was equally cold and wet.

After the Challenge and September’s Manchester Open, the Championships were the third Covid-safe and audience-free squash event held in Manchester in the last six months. Next month, it’s Cairo’s turn to stage a major event when the CIB Black Ball Open returns only three months after the completion of 2020’s delayed tournaments.

Whatever the Covid-safety arrangements, one thing’s for sure. It’ll be warm and dry outside.

Sources

Thanks to PSA SquashTV, Dailymotion, England Squash and SquashSite.

A Question In The House

With a global pandemic raging, a national lockdown in force and participation in most indoor sports suspended, it might be thought unusual for the business of the UK Parliament’s House of Commons to be debating the inclusion of squash in the Olympic Games. Yet that’s exactly what happened in the Chamber on January 12th, 2021 following a submission by former Welsh Ladies number one (and current Member of Parliament for Neath) Christina Rees.

Christina Rees MP

True to form, Rees had previously secured a similar Parliamentary debate in 2016 and obviously wasn’t going to let the small matter of a worldwide coronavirus outbreak put her off her debating stride. Her speech which amongst other things identified current Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford as being an accomplished squash player, came just over a month after Team GB’s failed attempt to register a petition to get squash into the Olympics. Rees also name-checked Tesni Evans, Joel Makin and referee Roy Gingell as role models for promoting the game and Welsh sport in general across the world.

The UK Government’s response was provided by Nigel Huddleston, MP for Mid-Worcestershire, lapsed squash player and holder of possibly the longest job-title in Government: Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Huddleston, in textbook political language, offered moral if not material support to his colleague and suggested that the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham presented the best opportunity for promoting squash globally in the near term.      

Well, I’m no judge but given their respective squash pedigrees, I reckon that Christina Rees would take him out in three.

Sources

Thanks to Hansard.

Tin Star

As the basis of a game plan for winning a prestigious PSA World Tour final against an in-form 20-year old defending champion playing in her home town, it looks a bit, well, risky.

Game 1: At 2-2, hit the ball into the tin in successive rallies and lose the game 4-11.

Game 2: At 9-10 down, hit the ball into the tin.

Game 3: At 10-9 up, get your opponent to hit the ball into the tin.

Game 4: Save two championship balls. At 11-10 up, get your opponent to hit the ball into the tin.

Game 5: Go 5-8 down. Then, at 10-9 up, get your opponent to hit the ball into the tin.

Yet, in the last women’s tournament of 2020, that’s exactly how England’s Sarah-Jane Perry became CIB Back Ball Open champion, overcoming Egypt’s Hania El Hammamy in Cairo.

Coming from two games and two match balls down, Perry eventually closed out the match in 75 minutes to add to the 10 PSA titles already in her locker. Which, of course, goes to show that some game plans can really pay off.

As comebacks go, Perry’s, in its own way, ranks alongside Ramy Ashour’s against Mohammed El Shorbagy in the 2014 World Open Championship final minus, sadly, the latter match’s deafening spectator involvement.

But with hopeful signs that squash across the world will soon be able to re-emerge from its enforced hiatus, let’s look forward to the sounds of the game being played, and appreciated, with energy and passion.

Even when it’s punctuated by the sound of the ball being hit into the tin.

Sources

Thanks to Squash TV and Squash Info.

Shetland Squash

What with all the Covid-19 pandemic coverage clogging up the news media, it’s easy to overlook the far-reaching impact of shifting global geo-politics on squash. Take the case of the Shetland Islands which, for the geo-politically challenged, is an archipelago off the North-East coast of mainland Scotland. At the time of writing, Shetland has 71 cases of Covid-19 out of a population of around 23,000, a third of which lives in its main town, Lerwick.

Community

Squash in Shetland is centred on the town’s squash club, founded in 1979 and boasting three singles courts which can be converted into two doubles courts. Considering the location of Lerwick – equidistant from Aberdeen in Scotland and Bergen in Norway – Shetland’s squash connections stretch around the globe by virtue of its participation in the International Island Games.

Puffin Squash Player (Lerwick Squash Club)

Founded in 1985, the Games are now contested every two years by representatives from 24 islands and island groups including Greenland, Rhodes, Menorca, St Helena and The Cayman Islands. Squash has featured in the Games four times, beginning in 2005 and, most recently, in 2019. Unfortunately, the 2021 Games, due to take place in Guernsey, were recently postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Independence

Although Shetland has tasted squash medal success in the Games, its future geo-political status is uncertain. The imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union has fuelled the demand for Scottish Independence led by the Scottish National Party. The situation has recently been complicated by calls for Shetland to remain part of the UK (as a British Overseas Territory) in the event of Scottish independence; in other words, to become independent of an independent Scotland.

Up Helly Aa Festival, Lerwick

To further complicate matters, Shetland culture is extremely diverse having been shaped by 5000 years of habitation by North Atlantic peoples from the mysterious ‘broch builders’ to The Picts and The Vikings. By way of illustration, Shetland’s annual Up Helly Aa festival includes a torchlit procession through Lerwick culminating in the burning of an imitation Viking galley.

Beyond Scottish Squash

When it comes to participation in squash, Shetland follows the lead of Scottish Squash whose current BounceBack initiative is intended to help clubs start re-introducing competitive squash in a time of pandemic uncertainty. But future geo-political trends may provide the islands with a wider choice of squash partners, not only by virtue of their geo-political status but also by virtue of the links to other island squash communities worldwide.

Sources

Thanks to The Scotsman, Shetland Heritage and Wikipedia.