Women’s Squash And The House Of Saud

By any account, 2018 is shaping up to be a ground-breaking year for women, sport and road transport in Saudi Arabia. In early January women were, for the first time ever, allowed to attend (men’s) professional football matches albeit accompanied by their male chaperones and confined to segregated seating areas. This revolutionary relaxation of The Kingdom’s strict laws followed last year’s announcement that, from June 2018, women would, also for the first time, be allowed to drive cars thus raising the possibility of increased female car ownership, demand for driving lessons, congestion on Saudi roads, attendances at Saudi football matches and development of sports stadiums to cater for dedicated toilet and refreshment facilities for women.

Later in January, women spectators were similarly let loose in Riyadh’s Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University to watch the first PSA world series squash tournament for women to be held in Saudi Arabia. And that’s not all. Not only did the tournament attract many of the world’s best players but, in a symbolic move, a last-32 wildcard entry was granted to The Kingdom’s highest-ranked player, Nada Abo Al Naja, who thus became the first Saudi woman to play in a world series PSA event. Al Naja went out of the competition, losing to number 2 seed Camille Serme of France.

Saudi PSA Women’s Squash Masters Finalists 2018

The tournament, originally scheduled to take place in November 2017, was held with Saudi Arabia in the throes of internal reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman including the lifting of restrictions on the activities of women. With total prize money of US$165,000 up for grabs, the tournament was won by World number 1 Nour El Sherbini of Egypt who defeated her compatriot Raneem El Weleily 3-0.

Footnote

As a matter of interest (well, it is to me anyway) Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world in which I have a 100% record of squash success having played and won two matches there. The matches were both played on a court at the Intercontinental hotel in Riyadh (where I was staying) against fellow hotel guests, both of whom were travelling with their racquets in the hope of bumming a match with anyone they could find.

So, the next time you’re visiting Riyadh…

Sources

Thanks to Arab News, The Times of Saudia and TheSports.org.

 

The Alexandria Quartet

Following, as I do, the progress of PSA tournaments, one can’t help but notice certain patterns. One such pattern, namely the appearance of Egyptian players in world ranking tournament finals, hardly needs mention. But the background of those players also lends itself to some interesting statistics.

Not surprisingly, most of Egypt’s top players originate mainly from the capital, Cairo, and the country’s second largest city, Alexandria. So, how have world ranked players from the two cities fared over recent months?

I decided to find out and looked at the results from 10 world ranking tournament finals (5 men’s and 5 women’s) over the last 4 months, namely:

The Tournament of Champions (January 2018)

The Saudi Women’s Masters (January 2018)

The World Championships (December 2017)

The Hong Kong Open (November 2017)

The Qatar Classic (October 2017)

The US Open (October 2017)

Of the 20 finalist places, 19 were filled by Egyptian players and just one by a non-Egyptian, Germany’s Simon Rosner, Winner of the Tournament of Champions in New York. Of the 19 places occupied by Egyptians, 6 were taken by 3 players from Cairo with 13 being taken by 4 players hailing from Alexandria. The ‘Alexandria quartet’ won 7 tournaments and was runner up in 6 while the ‘Cairo trio’ won 2 and was runner-up in 4.

The Alexandria quartet, as you may have guessed, comprises: current women’s world Nos.1 and 2, Nour El Sherbini and Raneem El Welily respectively; and current men’s world No. 2 Mohamed El Shorbagy together with his older brother (and world No.4), Marwan. Of the four, only Marwan El Shorbagy has failed to win at least one tournament, his defeat in the final of The World Championships (at the hands of his brother) being his only contribution to the quartet’s finalist haul (see below.)

The Cairo trio comprises: current women’s world No.3, Nour El Tayeb, men’s world No.3, Ali Farag, and world No.7, Tarek Momen. At the US Open, El Tayeb and Farag had the distinction of becoming the first married couple to win their tournaments  at the same world-ranked event.

As I write, the Windy City Open in Chicago has reached the semi-final stage. Three of the Alexandria quartet, the El Shorbagy brothers and Raneem El Welily, are still in contention, the latter having beaten the fourth member, Nour El Sherbini, in their quarter-final match (see below.) All three of the Cairo trio are also through.

I make that 6 semi-finalists out of 8.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that history has a 75% chance of repeating itself. But then, statistics has never been my strong point.

Sources

Thanks to PSA World Tour.

Squash and the Syrian Girls

Hot on the heels of news that Serbia’s Cricket Federation has established a government-sponsored programme to encourage migrants and refugees to play cricket, comes an equally inspiring story from the world of squash.

The source of the story is the Kingdom of Jordan which, by early 2017, had seen over 650,000 Syrian refugees seeking shelter from the civil war raging in their country.

In 2016, US charity Reclaim Childhood, in partnership with the Jordan Squash Federation, announced an initiative to introduce Syrian girl refugees to squash. Fast forward a year and fifteen girls are now playing the sport coached by some of Jordan’s top-ranked players.

One of them is eleven-year-old Raghda Hasriyeh who practices with two of her sisters in the Jordanian capital of Amman and now dreams of a career in squash. Her father, Nizar Hasriyeh, says: “I don’t understand anything about this sport but I am so happy to see my three daughters playing squash. I hope to see them become world champions one day.”

Raghda Hasriyeh

With its costly rackets and purpose-built courts, squash might not seem an obvious choice for children displaced from Syria. But Reclaim Childhood says that getting the refugee girls involved in the sport can be invaluable in helping them deal with the hardships they face.

Life for Syrian refugees in Jordan is difficult but the families of those girls taking part in the squash programme have been able to move out of crowded camps to accommodation on the outskirts of Amman. At least in a small way, squash has proved a godsend for them and their children.

Sources

Thanks to The Gulf News, NAIJA Squash Media and The Daily Mail.

Note

You can find a French language article on Jordan’s Syrian Girl Refugee squash programme on the IP Reunion website.

An Open And Closed Case

This year’s Women’s final at the British Open Squash Championship in Hull was the first in twenty-six years to feature two English players, namely Laura Massaro – from Manchester via Great Yarmouth – and Sarah-Jane Perry from Birmingham. Coincidentally, the match was a re-run of the British National Championships final held in Manchester earlier in the year with the same outcome, namely Massaro beating Perry to take the title.

Open

But what of the 1991 final and its participants? Where are they now and what are they doing?

Lisa Opie

Held at the Wembley Conference Centre in London, Guernsey’s Lisa Opie beat Kent’s Sue Wright to take her first and only British Open title. She was the first British woman to win the title for thirty years and it wasn’t through want of trying. Opie had previously reached four finals in five years (in ’82, ’83, ’84 and ’86*), all of which she had lost to Antipodean opponents, Australia’s Vicky Cardwell winning the first two and New Zealand’s Susan Devoy the last two.

*Footage from the 1986 final between Lisa Opie and Susan Devoy is shown below.

Lisa Opie was never to reach the final again.

Nine years later, however, Sue Wright did reach the final again, losing to New Zealand’s Leilani Joyce. This time, it was to be her final appearance.

Closed

Sue Wright with 1998 National trophy

During her career, Lisa Opie also won three British National Championships (‘81, ’86 and ’87). After retiring from the sport, she was awarded an MBE in 1995 for services to squash and now works as an osteopath in West London specialising in sports injury rehabilitation.

Sue Wright also gained success in the British National Championships winning four titles (in ’92, ’97, ’98* and 2001). The latter stages of her career were plagued by viral pneumonia, which left her with ear problems preventing her from flying to tournaments held outside the United Kingdom.

*Footage from the 1998 final against Cassie Jackman is shown below.

After retiring from squash, Wright founded the Sue Wright Squash Academy establishing a National Squash League Team purely from Academy players, the first time this had been done anywhere in the UK. Amongst other commitments, she’s now a presenter, commentator and interviewer at squash tournaments for the BBC and Sky, as well as being an ambassador for the London 2012 Olympics legacy programme ‘Sport Makers’.

Serendipity

A few months ago, I got to chatting with a dance partner at a local milonga. She told me that she’d recently been having treatment for back pain from a female osteopath specialising in sports injuries.

“She used to be a squash player,” she said. “Didn’t you say you were interested in squash?”

“Yes,” I said. “What’s her name?”

“Lisa,” she said. “Lisa Opie.”

Sources

Wikipedia, YouTube and the LinkedIn profiles of Lisa Opie and Sue Wright.

The Redeemer Of Floridablanca

I have to admit that until recently I’d never heard of the Colombian city of Floridablanca.

True, thirty years ago I probably flew over it en route to a memorable stay in the Colombian capital of Bogota. but, at the time, my attention was focussed on reaching Lima where I was due to join a group destined for Andean adventure, Amazonian exploration and, although I didn’t yet know it, severe food poisoning. Nevertheless, at 928 metres above sea level, Floridablanca had, and presumably still has, something that, at 2640  metres, Bogota noticeably lacked; namely, enough air to breathe whilst playing squash.

In March this year, Floridablanca hosted the inaugural Ciudad de Floridablanca PSA Women’s World Tour tournament, the final rounds of which were played on an open air court located in the city’s Parque el Santisimo. In the final, former World Number 1 Nicole David defeated America’s Olivia Blatchford 11-3 11-4 11-8.

All this might not sound particularly special but the location of the court certainly was, sharing an elevated plaza with the tallest “Christ the Redeemer” statue in South America. At 43 metres, the Floridablanca statue dwarfs its 30 metres tall rival in Rio de Janeiro which, as I recently discovered first-hand, shares its vantage point on top of Corcovado mountain with up to 14,000 visitors a day most of whom spend their time getting in each others’ way and taking photographs of themselves and each other with smart-phones.

The Floridablanca venue joins other iconic squash court locations, including the Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo, the Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal in New York and The Peninsula in Shanghai, in providing an providing an incredible setting for some of the best on-court action.

So the next time you consider visiting Rio for the holiday of a life-time, why not check out ticket availability for the next Ciudad de Floridablanca? You could even fly down to the fascinating city of Bogota for a few days.

But if you do decide to visit Floridablanca, be sure to pack your umbrella. And if you  decide to check out the capital too, you might want to consider an oxygen tank.

Sources

Thanks to Squash Site for its review of the inaugural final and to My Rio Travel Guide for its information on visitors to Rio’s “Christ the Redeemer” statue. Thanks also to Colombia Reports for its article on Floridablanca’s “Christ the Redeemer” statue.

Girl Unbound (2017) – Documentary Film

It was 2010 when I first wrote about Pakistani squash player Maria Toorpakay Wazir (then plain ‘Maria Toor Pakay’) for The Squash Life Blog. Now, six years later, a feature-length documentary telling her inspiring story is about to receive its UK premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London. The documentary, ‘Girl Unbound’, received its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and is directed by US film-maker Erin Heidenreich.

Born in 1990, Toorpakay now lives in Toronto but remains a controversial figure in her home country. In Waziristan, her family’s home region, women are still forbidden by the Taliban from playing sports. ‘Girl Unbound’ follows Toorpakay over several months as she represents Pakistan on the national team and carves her own identity, despite threats to her family.

The film begins in Toronto, where Toorpakay practices with Canadian squash champion Jonathon Power, before moving to Pakistan, where her family is forced to relocate to Islamabad for safety. Defying fundamentalist threats, she takes a harrowing road trip with her sister Ayesha Gulalai, a local politician. We get to know Toopakay’s large family, including her father, Shamsul, and mother, Yasrab, who rejected restrictive customary gender roles when raising their sons and daughters.

In 2016, Toorpakay published a memoir, ‘A Different Kind of Daughter’. That book, together with this film, demonstrates that she is a vital voice of resistance, standing up to forces that want to dictate what a woman’s role should be.

Credits

USA, 80 minutes

Directed by Erin Heidenreich

A Blackacre Entertainment Production

Featuring Maria Toopakay Wazir, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir and Ayesha Gulalai Wazir

Producers Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal and Jonathon Power

Music by Qasim Nakvi

Film Editing by Christina Burchard

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for its entries on Maria Toorpakay Wazir and Jonathon Power.

Manchester by the Canal

With the Oscar-nominated “Manchester by the Sea” still playing in the local cinemas, a return visit to the National Squash Centre seemed appropriate. Located in the Ancoats district of Manchester (England) within spitting distance of the Ashton Canal, the Centre was hosting the finals of the 2017 British National Squash Championships.

The last time I’d been to the finals, in 2011, reigning men’s champion Nick Matthew had been denied a hat-trick of consecutive titles by Essex’s Daryl Selby in a combative five-game affair. Since then, however, top-seeded Matthew had reeled off five titles in a row and was now aiming for his ninth overall, this time against first-time finalist Joe Lee.

In the women’s final another top seed and reigning champion, Laura Massaro, was aiming for her fourth title, her opponent being another first-time finalist Sarah-Jane Perry. On my last visit to the finals, Massaro had won her first title against Jenny Duncalf in another five-game epic.

This time, there were to be no fairy-tale endings for Lee or Perry, both going down 3-0 in entertaining matches.

In the final of the men’s over-45 competition, former two-time men’s champion Peter Marshall lost 3-1 to Manchester’s Nick Taylor whom I’d seen take the over-35 title in 2011. In 1994, Marshall, with his distinctive double-fisted style, had reached the final of the World Open in Barcelona where he’d lost to eight-times winner Jansher Khan.

Before the men’s and women’s finals, I watched the winners and runners-up of the rest of the competitions taking place during the week presented with their medals. I distinctly remembered that during my last visit to the championships, the finalists of the first men’s over-75 competition had been presented with their medals; this year, it was the finalists of the first men’s over-80 competition that were added to the role-call.

I made a mental note to be around for the first men’s over-85 competition but not necessarily to take part.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for entries on the Ashton Canal, the British National Squash Championships and the World Open Championships.

Club Policy (2016) – Short Film

A couple serves up tragedy on the squash court when someone doesn’t abide by club policy.

Credits

A New Media Ltd Film

Written and Directed by Ryan Dickie and Abigail Horton

Assistant Director Ryan Gladstone

Produced by Corey Deckler and Paul Horton

Starring Meredith Hagner as Kelly and Jason Selvig as Don

Costume Design by Jami Villers

Production Design by Evan T. Schafer

Prosthetics by Izzi Galindo and Jackie Zbuska

****

Official Selection Fantastic Fest 2016

Official Selection Woodstock Film Festival 2016

 

 

Squash Never Sleeps

The Tournament of Champions, held every year in New York, originally started life in 1930 as a men’s only event named the US Professional Championships. In 1993, it acquired its current name and in 2001 added a women’s event.

In 1991, the tournament debuted at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Centre before making its home at the Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal in 1995. It’s been held there ever since save for its temporary re-location, in 1996, to the Heights Casino in Brooklyn and, in 1996 and 1997 as the consequence of renovations to Grand Central.

In recent years, the ToC has developed into one of the most recognisable events on the PSA World Tour and has featured a multitude of famous winners during its 86-year history. The 2008 tournament, running from January 10th to the 16th, was typical in many ways. Involving 64 of squash’s highest-ranked male and female players, it drew over 4,000 paying spectators as well as thousands of commuters passing through Grand Central.

Yet, in one way, it was particularly significant. Within weeks of the end of the tournament its title sponsor, the global investment bank Bear Stearns, had collapsed.

The Big Short

Founded in 1923, Bear had become a victim of the global financial crisis and had been swallowed up by JP Morgan Chase, the ToC’s current title sponsor. Bear, and other Wall Street firms, had been heavily involved in issuing large amounts of asset-backed securities created by bundling together tranches of ‘sub-prime’ mortgages. In other words, mortgages whose holders were unlikely ever to pay back what they owed.

The asset-backed securities concerned were known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), a new unimproved version of which has now re-appeared in the global debt markets.

The story of several of the key players in the creation of the credit default swap market that sought to bet against the CDO bubble (and ended up profiting from the ensuing financial crisis) was told by Michael Lewis in his 2010 book ‘The Big Short’. The book highlights the eccentric nature of the type of person who bets against the market or goes against the grain.

The book has has now been turned into an Oscar-nominated film of the same name starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt.

The Game

Players in the world of global finance are nothing if not innovative. Yet herd behaviour again prevailed in the run-up to the global crisis. Banks, credit rating agencies, insurance companies and regulatory authorities alike failed to recognise that the system which they were gaming was rotten.

Since the crisis, nothing much has changed. Not even the event taking place every January in Grand Central Terminal, New York.

But, whatever the state of the global financial market, there will always be players to game the system, win, lose or just about break even. And some of them will pay for their name to be emblazoned across the front wall of a glass squash court in Vanderbilt Hall.

Sources

Thanks to the PSA for its article on the history of the Tournament of Champions and to Wikipedia for its entries on the ToC, Bear Stearns and The Big Short. Michael Lewis’s book, “The Big Short” is published by Allen Lane.

Squash And Love (2012) – Short Film

During a game of squash a man and a woman flirt. Their bodies brush, as they exchange a conspiring glance and smile. But will the game end as it began?

Credits

Squash And LoveCast: Carole Labouze (Joueuse) and Carl Laforêt (Jouer)

Cameraman: Bertrand Picault

Written and directed by Jean-Sébastien Bernard

Music by Eddy Benadjer and Jean-Sébastien Bernard

Produced by Les Films d’AntineA, Île-de-France, Paris, France.