Singapore Squash

Whatever the difficulties involved in developing squash in Singapore nowadays, there can be little doubt of the country’s success in promoting the game throughout the whole of South-East Asia. Indeed, Singapore still has a reputation in the region for punching above its weight, not least in the global financial services industry where it provides employment for over a quarter of a million people.

But, as in so many countries, the story of squash in Singapore really begins in its colonial past when squash courts began to appear in many of the camps occupied by British military personnel. And with the appearance of the courts came a passion for the game which still survives today.

Squash and the Military

After the Second World War, squash courts sprouted up in various British military camps such as the Army’s Gillman Barracks and the Royal Air Force’s base in Changi. The location of the oldest squash court in Singapore isn’t clear, largely because so many have either been demolished or incorporated into other facilities.

Squash at Gillman Barracks

Squash at Gillman Barracks

It’s rumoured that there was a squash court in the iconic Cathay Building on Handy Road – opened in 1939 to house the British Malaya Broadcasting Corporation – although nobody knows for sure.  The Building itself was mainly known for it’s air-conditioned theatre, then a technological marvel and the first to be built in Singapore

The Cathay Building

The Cathay Building

The British passion for squash gradually expanded to the Singapore Armed Forces and the Singapore Police Force during the transition to self-government in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Not surprisingly, many of the first local exponents of the game emerged from these uniformed groups.

In the late 1960s, squash (together with canoeing and, later, rugby) was promoted by the country’s Ministry of the Interior and Defence as part of a platform for building a rugged society. Singapore’s Defence Minister at the time, Dr Goh Keng Swee, believed strongly in squash as a physically demanding game ideally suited to improving the mental discipline and development of military personnel. Pioneer trainee air force pilots took up the game in droves.

Dr Goh Keng Swee

Dr Goh Keng Swee

The first Director General of Staff, Mr Tan Teck Khim also played a pivotal role in promoting squash in the Singapore Armed Forces after independence in 1965. He later became the Commissioner of Police and was instrumental in the development of squash in the Singapore Police Force.

Private Clubs and Public Courts

Tanglin Club and Singapore Cricket Club were the earliest private clubs to introduce squash, largely because of the influence of the British members at these clubs.

The earliest public courts were built by the National Sports Promotion Board, the forerunner of the Singapore Sports Council. These archaic courts had low ceilings with poor ventilation and dim lighting. Unsurprisingly, playing squash in extremely humid conditions with small-headed wooden rackets provided a major challenge to enthusiasts. However, the interest in  playing squash was so great amongst the members of the public that players were obliged to queue in person at the court booking offices one week in advance just to make sure that they could play during their preferred time slot. Phone bookings were unthinkable.

The rush to book squash courts eased tremendously with the proliferation of new squash courts all over the island from the 1970s to the 1990s. Almost every new apartment block or condominium incorporated a squash court in their facilities and playing the game at any time of the day or night did not pose a problem anymore. The Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association, The Singapore Armed Forces Reservists Association, The Police Sports Association and many social clubs contributed to the rapid increase of squash courts in the country as the sport was regarded as being the “in” thing.

National and International Competition

The Singapore Squash Rackets Association was founded in 1970, the majority of its early office holders  being drawn from the Army, the Police, returning overseas students  and the expatriate community. In the same year, the first Singapore Open was held with a women’s title being  introduced two years later. As the competition became more established, its winners began to include the top world ranked squash players of the day such as Pakistan’s Qamar Zaman and Gogi Alaudin

In 1973, the first national squash championships were held and, in the late 1970s, Singapore also played host to the PIA World Series featuring the top 20 squash players of the world including 8-time British Open champion Geoff Hunt of Australia.

By the end of the decade, the level of participation squash had risen to such a level that it was perhaps inevitable that a word class local hero would emerge from the island’s squash playing community.

Local Heroes

Zainal Abidin ruled the squash courts of Singapore for 10 years and was Singapore’s undisputed squash champion from 1977 to 1986. He  not only put Singapore squash on the Asian map, his extraordinary skills also extended the republic’s reputation on the world squash map as well.

Abidin started playing squash in 1977 when, as a 19 year-old, he was serving his national service with the Police Force. It was a considerably late age to begin but his natural talent, instinct and abilities for the game soon ensured his meteoric rise.  His triumphs and achievements also helped develop a large following and participation in the game throughout Singapore. Squash was being played at all levels, from pre-teens to young adults to senior citizens. Such was the appeal of squash in the 1980s, a development made possible due to the exploits of the games local heroes, Abidin, Peter Hill and Jeremy Yeo.

Zainal Abidin

Zainal Abidin

In the women’s game, it was to take a little longer before the emergence of a local hero.  Lim Seok Hui started playing squash just before her 11th birthday with the encouragement of her avid squash enthusiast parents. She was only 13 years old when she represented Singapore at the East Asian Women’s Squash Championship in Hong Kong – making her amongst the youngest competitors in the history of squash in Singapore and East Asia.

Lim Seok Hui

Lim Seok Hui

In 1983, the 16 year-old became the youngest champion in the history of Singapore squash when she won the Singapore Open title. The following year, she became the youngest ever female player to win the East Asian Women’s Squash Championship overcoming Hong Kong’s  Julie Hawkes.

Abidin and Hui are still Singapore’s most famous squash players. But over a quarter of a century after their heyday, what is the state of Singapore squash today?

Squash in Challenging Times

In March 2010, the Straits Times reported that bookings for squash courts had risen steadily over the previous few years according to figures released by the Singapore Sports Council. But statistics can be misleading. Although a huge number of squash courts were built in the 1980s and 1990s, many were either under-used or were converted to alternative uses, such as gymnasiums, children’s play areas, table tennis halls and even karaoke lounges! So, it’s likely  that participation in the game in Singapore has declined over the last couple of decades.

Despite this, live television coverage of international squash tournaments such as the Singapore Women’s Masters has recently re-commenced. And although there’s more to reviving the game than just getting greater publicity, Singapore’s continuing financial success, and its financial services community, may still prove to be a useful source of investment in the sport – as well as attracting a new crop of competitive individuals to the island’s squash courts.

Time to re-visit the Wall Street model, perhaps?

Acknowledgements

For a detailed description of the development of squash in Singapore, read Munir Shah’s excellent article “Squash in Singapore – The Early Years”.

You can also read Lam Chun See’s personal reminiscences of his squash playing life on his “Good Morning Yesterday” blog.

Squash on Wall Street

A couple of weeks ago, I posted from the World Series Squash Finals in South West London which had reached the semi-final stage.

Sadly, the final – between England’s Nick Matthew and Amr Shabana of Egypt – was never played, overnight storm damage rendering the venue unsafe. But two weeks later, Matthew and Shabana did meet – in the semi-final of the Tournament of Champions in New York.

And the tournament, staged in the Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Station, was sponsored, in true American style, by one of the largest investment banks in the world.

Rescue on Wall Street

In March 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis, the US investment bank J P Morgan Chase took over one of its rivals, Bear Stearns, at a startlingly low price. The share price of Bear Stearns, which had until recently been the fifth largest bank on Wall Street, had all but collapsed as a result of its over-exposure to  the mortgage-backed assets that were central to the subprime mortgage crisis.

Tournament of Champions in Vanderbilt Hall 2008

Tournament of Champions in Vanderbilt Hall 2008

As part of the takeover deal, J P Morgan not only acquired Bear Stearns’ assets – including its glittering Madison Avenue skyscraper headquarters – but also its sponsorship of a squash tournament. The Tournament of Champions.

The founder of J P Morgan was the eponymous John Pierpoint Morgan (b1837 –d 1913), the  American financier, banker and art collector who dominated the world of corporate finance and industrial consolidation.

John Pierpoint Morgan

John Pierpoint Morgan

Morgan was the leading financier of the so-called Progressive Era, a period of social activism and reform that flourished from the 1890s to the 1920s. His dedication to efficiency and modernisation helped transform American business. Morgan also redefined conservatism in terms of financial prowess coupled with strong commitments to religion and high culture.

Money Never Sleeps

What Morgan would have made of his bank’s sponsorship of a squash tournament is a matter of speculation. But there’s no doubt that the 2011 event has been a money-spinner for its sponsors.

And who knows, perhaps the squash match scene with Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) and Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen)in the 1987 movie Wall Street
really was a metaphor for bleeding edge capitalism and the survival of the fittest….and bending the rules….

Well, if so, Nick Matthew – who meets Rami Ashour in the final – is going to have a really challenging time later this evening.

And possibly a very lucrative one.

But I suspect he knows that already.

A Squash Match on the Titanic

On the 14th of April, 1912 RMS Titanic, the largest passenger steamship in the world, was four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City.  At 2340hrs, 640km south of the Great Banks of Newfoundland, she struck an iceberg and sank at 0220hrs the following morning with the loss of 1,517 lives. The sinking of the Titanic is one of the most famous disasters in maritime history, if not world history. But what’s less well-known is that down in the ship’s lower deck, there was a squash court.

The Squash Racquets Court

The Titanic’s squash racquets court was available for use by first class passengers only. Players were charged two shillings each (50 US cents in those days) for the use of the court and playing sessions were limited to one hour if others were waiting.

The Squash Court on the Titanic

The Squash Court on the Titanic

The court was 30ft long and 20ft wide compared to 32ft and 21ft respectively for a modern court. This was due to the structural design of the Titanic which also restricted the height of the court to 15ft 8inches as opposed to today’s 18ft 6inches. Use of the lob was therefore limited. The door into the court was positioned in the left side of the back wall. The floor of the court was on G deck, with the upper part of the court occupying the space between F and E deck. The court’s viewing gallery was located on F deck. The court and its position in the ship were to play an important part in the disaster that was to engulf the Titanic.

The Players

The court was under the supervision of Mr Frederick Wright of Great Billing, Northamptonshire in England. Wright was the Titanic’s squash racquet professional. For a wage of £1 per week, Wright not only cleaned the court and ran the booking system but also supplied passengers with squash racquets and balls. He was also available to play as an opponent if required.

Frederick Wright

Frederick Wright

One of the passengers who used the court during the voyage was Colonel Archibald Gracie, a 53-year-old amateur historian from Mobile, Alabama in the US, who was travelling alone. During his previous transatlantic trips, it had been Gracie’s custom to take as much exercise as possible to stay in prime physical condition. But, on this trip, he had spent much of his time enjoying  the social (and gastronomic) opportunities  on offer, and reading books from the well-stocked ship’s library.

The Squash Match

On the evening of Saturday, April 13th Gracie decided it was time to cut back on the socialising and start his fitness regimen again. He arranged with his room steward, Charles Cullen, to wake him early on Sunday morning in order to play squash with Frederick Wright, work in the gymnasium with Mr T W McCawley, and swim in the Titanic’s heated swimming pool. All before breakfast. But twenty minutes before midnight, the collision which was to result in the sinking of the Titanic put an end to Gracie’s arrangements. Shortly after midnight, while looking for his friends, Gracie met the racquet professional, Wright, in the stairway of C deck. “Perhaps we had better cancel our match for tomorrow morning, Mr Wright!” he said half jokingly.  Wright concurred but seemed rather concerned, probably because he knew that the court was already filling with water. The match between Gracie and Wright would never be played.

The Viewing Gallery

The watertight bulkheads of the Titanic projected from its keel up to F deck where the squash court’s viewing gallery was located. When the watertight doors were closed, these bulkheads had been designed to contain any water that might get into the Titanic’s hull compartments. The Titanic’s builders, Harland and Wolff of Belfast, Northern Ireland had calculated that, even if four compartments were flooded, the ship could still continue. However, as a result of the collision, five were initially flooded. It was known very soon after hitting the iceberg that the ship was doomed. The weight of water in the compartments would gradually tilt the ship and cause it to sink.

RMS Titanic

RMS Titanic

As it was located below the Titanic’s bridge, the squash court was a convenient place from which to monitor the rise of the water. These periodic observations were made from the viewing gallery and  duly entered in the ship’s log. At 0220hrs on Sunday, April 15th the Titanic sank.

Survival

As the ship went down, Archibald Gracie was still clinging to the rail of the topmost deck after the wave had passed over him that swept the Titanic before her final plunge. “When the ship plunged down,” he said in one of his first accounts of the tragedy, “I was forced to let go, and I was swirled around and around for what seemed an interminable time. Eventually I came to the surface to find the sea a mass of tangled wreckage. “Luckily, I was unhurt, and, casting about, managed to seize a wooden grating floating nearby. When I had recovered my breath, I discovered a large canvas and cork life-raft which had floated up. A man, whose name I did not learn, was struggling toward it from some wreckage to which he had clung. I cast off and helped him to get onto the raft, and we then began the work of rescuing those who had jumped into the sea and were floundering in the water. “When dawn broke there were thirty of us on the raft, standing knee deep in the icy water and afraid to move lest the cranky craft be overturned. Several unfortunates, benumbed and half dead, besought us to save them and one or two made an effort to reach us, but we had to warn them away. “The hours that elapsed before we were picked up by the Carpathia were the longest and most terrible that I ever spent.”

Epilogue

Gracie wrote an account of the tragedy that was originally published in 1913 as “The Truth About The Titanic”. He never finished proofing his original manuscript. Gracie died on December 4th 1912 at his ancestral home in New York, having never fully recovered from the trauma of that night. Nearly a century after the event, a revised version of his book is still in print under the title, “Titanic”: A Survivor’s Story. Gracie appeared as a character played by actor Bernard Fox in the 1997 motion picture Titanic
.
Frederick Wright went down with the ship which employed him as a squash professional. His body was never found.

Squash in the Pink Bubble

Sitting in a pink bubble in West London on a wet Friday night in January may not seem like everybody’s idea of fun. But when the bubble contains another 250 people, a see-through squash court and some of the world’s top squash players, you may think that it’s not such a bad idea after all. And, particularly if you’re a squash lover, you’d be right.

The Queen’s Club

The recently re-launched World Series Squash Finals are being held right now at The Queen’s Club in London. Not just any old Queen’s Club, mind you, but The Queen’s Club. Although I’m guessing that she doesn’t actually play there. On a regular basis anyway. But that’s where the aforementioned inflatable pink squash venue has been standing for the last week or so. And I went to the semi-finals there last night to have a look.

The Pink Bubble at The Queen's Club, January 14th, 2011

The Pink Bubble at The Queen's Club, January 14th, 2011

To say that The Queen’s Club is a suitable location for a racket sport competition is probably an understatement. It maintains courts for tennis, real tennis, rackets and squash, at least two of which I don’t know the rules for, or anybody who plays them. And when the squash court in the pink bubble is scheduled to be dismantled tomorrow, the club’s members will just have to make do with the 45 remaining courts available to them.

The Finals Experience

Whatever the target audience for the Finals, you couldn’t fault the staging. Clear announcements, great time management, comfy seats, instant video replays, post-match interviews, on-court entertainment between matches (UK hip-hop dance group ZooNation), live commentary and expert analysis (from Jonah Barrington amongst others) via a personal Wi-Fi earpiece, and excellent catering. In fact, had the four semi-final matches scheduled all been walkovers, I suspect that an impromptu tournament and entertainment involving audience members could have been organised on the spot. Health and safety issues permitting of course.

On a social level, I met some fellow squash coaches, one of whom offered an entertaining critique of the performance of the team cleaning the court between games. “Look!” he observed. They’re all cleaning the back wall in the right hand corner even though there are just as many marks in the left hand corner.” I even joined in at one point having become fixated with the team’s cleaning strategy. All this, of course, is why going to squash tournaments is so much fun!

The Squash

The semi-finals of the women’s invitation event included former World No 1, Vanessa Atkinson, and current World No 2, Jenny Duncalf. France’s Camille Serme took Duncalf to a third game in the best-of three match before running out of steam. “I wasn’t expecting to win the second game” she said. As I never expect to win any games, I had some sympathy for her.

In the other semi, Vanessa Atkinson lost 2-0 to England’s Laura Massaro. By the way, the women’s matches were played using a 17 inch tin rather than the 19 inch tin normally used on the women’s tour.

In the World Series semis, England’s Nick Matthew again beat his fellow Yorkshireman, James Willstrop, in straight games. In this afternoon’s final, he’ll meet Egypt’s Amr Shabana who beat Ramy Ashour, also of Egypt, and also in straight games. Ashour, still recovering from a hamstring injury, said in his post-match interview, “Amr’s so quick with his hands you feel he could put the ball in his pocket during a rally without you seeing him do it.”

I must try that in my next league match.

Postscript: The Bubble Bursts

Sadly, during the early hours of the morning after the semi-finals, the inflatable venue for the World Series tournament was seriously damaged by high winds. A tear in the fabric of the building led to it being declared unsafe, then to the postponement of the finals and eventually to their cancellation. At the time of writing, no decision has been made as to where, when or whether they will be played.

Never mind, here’s a funky video which should give you some idea of the Pink Bubble experience. Enjoy!

Squash on TV: The Clinger and The Ringer

I suppose that squash isn’t such a mainstream sport that it appears regularly in light entertainment TV programmes. Well, at least not in the UK. In fact, I can remember only two occasions where a squash club setting was used as a key feature in what’s now known as terrestrial television. Once in a comedy drama and once in a much-loved comedy sketch show.

The Clinger

Clinger n A ball running right along the side wall which is difficult to hit. A clinger may be the result of a straight drive or of a cross-court drive which squirts from the nick high up between the front and side walls.

The Clinger was a 60 minute play shown on UK television in 1986 as part of a series of dramas entitled Love and Marriage. Set in a squash club and taking place over a single evening, it traced the fortunes of Alan (Richard Hope) in his attempts to impress fellow club member Samantha (Sallyanne Law).

Playing an internal league match against old hand Ernie (Ron Pember), Alan finds himself battling not just against his own nervousness, but also against Ernie’s superior court craft and his strongest shot, the clinger. Alan’s romantic fantasies slowly turn into a nightmare as he’s given the run-around by Ernie only to be handed a lucky break as the match moves towards its inevitable conclusion. Ernie collapses and dies of a heart attack thereby forfeiting the match!

Running through The Clinger were a number of humorous storylines dealing with the petty politics of squash club life including the point scoring rules for the internal leagues. These, of course, come sharply into focus following the dramatic conclusion of Alan and Ernie’s match.

An impromptu eulogy is given by club chairman Jack (Alan David) as Ernie is stretchered off court to a waiting ambulance. Jack pays tribute to Ernie and his clinger only to be lobbied by various club members anxious that, as a result of Ernie forfeiting his match, they will be denied promotion or  relegated from their league.

Naturally, Alan wins the match by default….and gets the girl.

I do like a happy ending.

The Ringer

Ringer n One who misrepresents his or her identity or ability in order to gain an advantage in a competition.

A couple of months ago I found myself in a queue in a London bookshop with Ronnie Corbett, the  surviving (and smaller) member of The Two Ronnies comedy partnership. It was recently Corbett’s 80th birthday, an event marked by repeat broadcasts of many of his best known TV sketches as well as a new programme involving a range of British comedians.

One such sketch with Ronnie Barker sees the two engaged in changing room banter after a squash match. Corbett plays the experienced club player with Barker, a complete novice who has apparently played his first game ever – wearing a business suit. Barker is seeking clarification of the squash scoring system from the humiliated Corbett having just beaten him 9-1, 9-0, 9-0. Corbett’s solitary point has apparently been won at the start of the match when Barker was still holding the wrong end of his racket.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Barker plays a ringer in this sketch but 25 years after its first broadcast, it still has the power to bring a smile to the face.

The Longest Squash Match Ever

The Chichester Marathon and Hand-out Scoring

After March 30th, 1983, answering the question “What is the longest squash match on record?” got a whole lot easier. That was the day that Pakistan’s Jahangir Khan and Egypt’s Gamal Awad played a match in Chichester, England which lasted 2 hours and 46 minutes. And it didn’t even run to five games, Jahangir eventually winning 3-1 after losing the first game 9-10.

It was the era of hand-out scoring where only the server could win the point for that rally. Lose the rally as server and you lost the serve. That’s all.

In many ways, the match statistics reflect the scoring system. It was almost 15 minutes before a point was scored. One rally alone lasted for 7 minutes and ended in a let. The acrobatic Awad, known as The Rubber Man or The Grasshopper, took the first game after 1 hour and 15 minutes, still the longest on record. After that, the rest of the match almost raced by, the next three games taking a mere 1 hour and 31 minutes.

Point a Rally Scoring – Return of the Epics

The introduction of PARS (Point A Rally Scoring) to the professional game was intended to make attritional contests such as the Chichester marathon shorter, as well as to encourage shot making. A strategy which, to a large extent, worked.

But more recently, the epics have returned.

In December 2008, fourth seeded Shawn Delierre overcame top-seeded fellow Canadian Shahier Razik to reach the final of the Baltimore Cup in Baltimore, USA, in a 5-game, 2 hour 30 minute marathon. At the time, it was is the longest recorded squash match since the introduction of PARS.

In April, 2010 two Malaysians, Ivan Yuen and Mudh Asyraf Azam, played another 5-game match lasting 2 hours and 43 minutes – just 3 minutes shorter than that at Chichester – in a qualifier for the 5 Star Indian Challenger Tournament in Kolkata, India.

And finally, in October 2010 at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India Mohd Azlan Iskandar of Malaysia beat England’s Daryl Selby in a 4-game quarter-final match lasting 2 hours 15 minutes.

Postscript: Gamal Awad (1955-2004)

But even when the 1983 Chichester record is broken, I suspect that it’s the story of that match between Jahangir and Gamal Awad (see picture) which will not only live in the memory but will pass into squash legend.

Sadly, one of its heroes, Gamal Awad, died of a heart attack in Alexandria, Egypt in November 2004, aged just 49. He retired from the professional squash circuit in 1987, following problems with knee injuries. The highlights of his career were as runner-up in both the 1982 World Masters and the 1983 British Open Squash championships – in both cases to Jahangir.

But perhaps he’ll always be best known for participating with Khan in that match in Chichester in 1983.