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.

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.

Is It A Bird? Is It A Plane?

With the suspension of the PSA World Tour, the folks at PSA SquashTV have outdone themselves in posting a diverse range of consistently interesting content to, er, divert the locked-down squash lover.

This has included compilations of isolation trick shots, player interviews and the sight of Sarah-Jane Perry being upstaged by her own cat. However, my own personal favourite was this ‘blast from the past’ from the 2010 Tournament of Champions in New York.

Just so you’re clear, the occasion was a match between a left-handed Scot playing as an Englishman (Peter Nicol) and a right-handed Australian playing as a Scot (John White. That’s about all you need to know.

Paul Coll? Eat your heart out.

Sources

Thanks to PSA SquashTV.

Nigeria Squash

Having previously written about the inexorable rise of Egyptian squash, it’s refreshing to share some recent stories from another African squash-playing nation with ‘wannabe’ aspirations: Nigeria.

International Competition

In the context of international competition, Autumn 2019 saw history made as Babatunde Ajagbe became the first-ever Nigerian, male or female, to play in a PSA tournament final losing to Canada’s Michael McCue in the Kiva Club Squash Open in Sante Fe.

Babatunde Ajagbe at the Men’s World Team Squash Championships 2019

Three months later in Washington DC, Ajagbe led Nigeria’s four-man squad in the Men’s World Team Squash Championships, the first time that the country had taken part in the competition for 20 years. Drawn in Pool B with England, Wales and Canada, the team put in some strong individual performances eventually finishing in 21st position by beating South Korea and Singapore in the 21st-23rd place play-offs.

Yemisi Olatunje 2019

In 2019 Nigeria’s top woman player, Yemisi Olatunji, also competed in two PSA tournaments held in North America, reaching the second round of the Granite Open in Toronto and the Queen City Open in Regina. She also competed in the London Open in the UK where she lost 3-1 to England’s Alicia Mead in the first round.

Domestic Politics

In the context of Nigerian domestic politics, early 2020 saw the appearance of squash in the national media in the person of the nation’s Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo. The Veep, sporting a worn-the-right-way-round baseball cap, was pictured playing squash with his son on a suspiciously pristine private court at his residence in Abeokuta, Ogun State. The Professor was playing “to get fit” reported the Nairaland Forum website although some below-the-line comments were somewhat less charitable.

Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo 2020

“Imagine. What vice president of a country starts the new year playing squash – with tax payers money!” raged one. “This kind of extravagance by the office of the vice president is mind boggling! The man is supposed to be at his drawing board working out how to fix the rot of 2019 but here he is playing squash!”

The Veep’s fitness regime, however, was defended by another website commenter:

“What should he have started the year doing? Dining with you in your one-bedroom shack?”

Sometimes, its better just to let people get on court and play, isn’t it?

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia, SquashInfo, and the TopMediaNG, Nairaland and Naija Squash Media websites.

Squash Tournament Poster of the Year 2019

OK, I’ll admit that I don’t spend much time scouring squash club notice boards, internet websites or street signs looking for posters advertising squash tournaments. But wherever I am or whatever I’m doing, my squash radar is switched on, sweeping the environment for tell-tale signs of squash life. A bit like a squash archaeologist wandering through cultural landscapes, if you will.

Not only that, friends and family members are well aware that sniffing out traces of squash culture is a feature of my behaviour and actually provides me with what is, to them, a form of pleasure as inexplicable as it is baffling. So much so that some amongst them have been known to indulge me by drawing my attention to squash stories and artefacts I may not have encountered much in the manner as one might throw a bone to a hungry dog.

Final of the 2019 CIB Egyptian Open between Ali Farag and Karim Abdel Gawad

In the case of a Belgian friend with absolutely no interest in squash or, for that matter, dogs a recent event occurred which demonstrates the power of acquired squash autosuggestion. Walking through the arrivals hall at Cairo’s International Airport, she noticed a colourful poster in the style of an ancient Egyptian tomb painting. Further examination showed it to be for a squash tournament, the latter stages of which were to be staged outdoors at a site overlooking the Pyramids at Giza.

Equipped, as always, with a smart-phone and the patience to wait until she had a clear field of view, she took a photograph of the poster, a copy of which arrived on my own phone shortly afterwards. I present it here in the hope that I will not be breaking Egyptian copyright law which I understand does not prevent artists from drawing images of the monuments or historic sites, as long as said images are not exact copies.

Poster in the Arrivals Hall of Cairo International Airport

So, as long as no tombs are unearthed which depict an anonymous Pharoah holding a squash racquet being offered squash balls by a servant girl, I think I’m safe.

Sources

Thanks to PSA Squash TV for covering the 2019 CIB Egyptian Squash Open and an anonymous friend for photographing the poster.

Great Britain Are World Team Champions! (…in Racketlon)

As someone with his finger on the pulse of world squash (no, really), I have to admit that a recent article in The Times came as a bit of a surprise. It drew my attention to the existence of the multi-event sport of racketlon which not only incorporates squash as one of its four racket-based activities but also has a global governing body vying for its inclusion in the 2024 Olympics. Not only that, but a bit of digging around the racketlon press revealed that the 2019 World Team Championships had just been held in Germany.

Well, so much for fingers and pulses.

The Rules

In racketlon players compete individually, or as part of doubles pairs, in each of four racket sports: table tennis, badminton, squash and tennis. One ‘set’ is played in each sport, the sequence of sports beginning with the smallest (table tennis) and ending with the biggest (tennis) racket. Squash slots in at number three in the sequence.

In singles matches each of the four sets is scored to 21 points, with a margin of two points needed to win a set tied at 20 points all. In team competitions, sets are played to 11 points with setting coming into effect at 10 points all.

The winner of a match is the player or doubles pair accumulating the highest number of points in total. If the score is tied after all four sports, a single extra tennis  point is played to decide the match winner, the server being decided by drawing lots.

In doubles matches, the squash set is played by one member of each team until one player reaches 11 points; the set is then completed by the two remaining team members.

Simple, eh?

Racketlon sports

The Tour

Racketlon originated in 1980s Finland and Sweden but it wasn’t until 2001 that its first international tournament was held in Gothenburg. Now, its governing body, the Federation Internationale de Racketlon (FIR), oversees a World Tour which, in 2019, consisted of 20 tournaments held at venues in Europe, the US and Asia. These included an inaugural London Open, held in August at the prestigious Roehampton Club, and, in November, the World Singles and Team Championships in Leipzig. And it was in Leipzig that Great Britain lifted the World and Nations titles for the first time with India winning the Challenge Cup tournament.

Racketlon has obviously come a long way in the thirty years since its first appearance. With its format modelled on other combination Olympic sports such as the triathlon and pentathlon, and with squash again being passed over, perhaps racketlon can help to raise the profile of the soft-ball game.

Maybe it’s time to add to our racket collections.

Sources

Thanks to The Times, Wikipedia and tournamentsoftware.com.

Hijab Stories – Part 2

For Part 1 of “Hijab Stories” go to the following link.

In the space of a few days in early August, I stumbled across two stories connected by a common theme: female squash players who represent their countries in international competition…and who wear the hijab.

Competition

The first story covered the final of the World Junior Womens Squash Team Championships held in Kuala Lumpur. As has become de rigeur in recent years, the final was contested between Egypt and another country, this time that country being the hosts, Malaysia. Both finalists in each of the other competitions taking place at the Championships, namely the Mens and Womens Singles, were, yes you’ve guessed it, also Egyptian.

World Junior Squash Womens Team Championships 2019 (Final)

But it was Malaysia’s 17-year old first string, Aifa Azman, that caught my attention by virtue of the fact that her kit incorporated a hijab. Although Azman lost her match to Egyptian first string (and just-crowned Junior Womens Singles champion) Hania El Hamammy, her performance in winning the first game pretty much demonstrated that, in squash at least, dress codes have adapted in recognition of the nature of the opportunities presented by international competition.

Gossip

The second story described the experience of 12-year old US squash player Fatima Abdelrahman. En route to play in a tournament in Toronto, Abdelrahman had, according to news reports, cleared security at San Francisco Airport to board an Air Canada flight. Travelling with her older sister, she was reportedly asked by a ‘gate agent’ to remove her hijab, apparently without being given the option of doing so in private.

Irrespective of the circumstances, the social media storm triggered by the incident is, at the time of writing, still going strong. Yet, unlike Aifa Azman’s participation in a squash tournament, the Abdelrahman incident demonstrates how a single human conversation lasting seconds can generate so many secondary communications, between individuals not actually present at the time, unfamiliar with any of the people involved and, almost certainly, unaware of the existence of squash. Whether or not any of those communications will ultimately be helpful to any of the parties involved in the incident, I’ll leave for others to judge. Meanwhile, I’ll keep on looking for stories which celebrate a sport which, in my opinion, can compete with the best.

In public or in private.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia and The National Post.