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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 April 2007, 18:53 GMT 19:53 UK
Squash primed for '80s revival
By Matt Slater

Natalie Grinham and Nicol David
Natalie Grinham and Nicol David battle for position at the T
While Dumfries DJ/producer Calvin Harris is more likely to be singing about asymmetric haircuts or wearing more than one Swatch at the same time, his hit "It was acceptable in the '80s" could easily apply to squash too.

Because back then squash was the sporting equivalent of watching The A-Team and wearing leggings.

Three million Britons were playing it and squash clubs were booming. And despite having a reputation for being better to play than watch, crowds of over 4,000 were attracted to watch the sport at venues like the Royal Albert Hall.

Now, however, those playing numbers are down to about 500,000 and sell-out crowds of 450 on the final three days of last month's Canary Wharf Squash Classic were considered a result.

So what happened?

Well, it depends who you talk to, but the main reasons for the game's decline in popularity are that fitness clubs happened and the Olympics didn't.

In short, chain or local council fitness clubs have decided to put rowing machines or spin classes where space-hungry squash courts used to be. And if fitness clubs were not putting the squeeze on squash, property developers were. Even successful clubs like London's famous Lambs have been gobbled up.

606: DEBATE
Matt Slater
And the continuing cold shoulder from the International Olympic Committee has deprived the sport of publicity and lottery cash - not being invited to London's 2012 shindig was a major blow for squash, not to mention this country's medal-table chances.

Throw into that mix a lazy media more comfortable with old stereotypes than new realities and you have all the ingredients for an unfashionable sport.

As a card-carrying member of the lazy media I should probably deal with that last one first, particularly as prior to attending last month's tournament at Canary Wharf I was content with my cosy, old-fashioned view of the game.

If somebody had asked me for some immediate thoughts on the game I would have come up with something like "middle-aged sales directors risking heart attacks in bad shorts" or "hard work, even harder to watch".

There is an element of that old businessman stereotype about squash - we have got to change that perception

Peter Nicol
But then it's not just me and my ilk giving squash a bad name - former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld loves the game and American business bible Forbes recently named squash as its favourite sport. With friends like that...

The "image" issue was something I asked Peter Nicol about - the recently retired British squash legend was at Canary Wharf's East Wintergarden as a co-promoter.

"It's true, there is an element of that old businessman stereotype about squash," the 34-year-old former world number one said.

"But the same can be said about lots of sports and there are loads of kids playing squash now and the game is growing all over the world.

Cambridge University's squash team in 1934
Squash fashions and haircuts have relaxed a little in recent years
"It's changing at the professional level too. We've got a guy here (Egyptian Wael El Hindi) who wears a sleeveless top and long shorts like Rafael Nadal - everybody is talking about it because it's traditionally 'just not squash'.

"We have got to change that perception about the game. But there are people within the game that want to do that and are doing it.

"It's a case of everybody getting together, which includes getting the manufacturers to make trendy kit that is squash specific. That will make it more appealing for younger players.

"The challenge is to get the kids to stay in the game. A lot of guys my age take up the game again after not playing for years. It's that middle period, the 18-30 group, when perhaps it's not sexy enough."

He is right, of course, and the sport is certainly moving in a saucier direction. The squash I witnessed was fast and furious, colourful and confrontational. Squash has come a long way in the sexy stakes from thinking that asking British star Vicky Botwright to wear a thong on court would suffice.

A glass court with the Pyramids in the background
The glass courts can be put up in the most stunning locations
Spectators get a fantastic view of the action through the new glass courts (courts that can be erected almost anywhere, as recent tournaments in front of the Pyramids or in Grand Central Station would suggest) and anything they miss is replayed on flat screens hanging from the ceiling.

The screens also keep spectators up to speed with stats and on-court interviews are conducted with players after matches to give fans an immediate reaction to what they have witnessed. There is even a radar gun to measure who hits it hardest.

And for those that have never played or seen squash, it is a surprisingly physical game. The secret is to dominate the middle of the court (the "T") and dictate from there.

With two athletes charging about in a confined space, contact is a constant risk. In some ways squash is as physical as that other famously non-contact sport, basketball, except that squash players are wielding weapons too.

That is why "lets" (when you are accidentally blocked from reaching the ball and therefore allowed to replay it) and "strokes" (when you are illegally blocked from reaching the ball and therefore given the point) are an integral part of the game's drama.

The subjective nature of these calls adds to the tension and the give-and-take between player and referee acts like a sub-plot to the main story.

We've changed the scoring, we've lowered the T to make the game more attacking and we play on glass courts - it's a lot funkier now

Adrian Grant
In the past, however, the sub-plot has sometimes become the main story (Nicol's matches with his rival Jonathon Power were often interrupted as the Canadian clashed with the two referees in John McEnroe fashion) so here too squash has looked for an innovative solution.

The Canary Wharf tournament was trialling a majority-rule system where two referees would sit amongst the crowd and make snap judgements on let-or-stroke decisions. These two would indicate their decisions to the main referee behind them with Gladiator meets paper, scissors, rock hand signals.

What all this adds up to is that squash as a spectator or television event has never looked better. The trick now is to get that message out there.

One of the players in action last month was Adrian Grant. The 26-year-old from Catford made the quarter-finals in Canary Wharf before he lost a tight contest to the top seed Thierry Lincou.

Grant, the first black squash player to represent England, in many ways represents squash's current dilemma perfectly.

Thierry Lincou and Adrian Grant
Spectators now have a superb view of squash's close combat
He is a young, talented, exciting player that proves you do not need to come from a privileged background to succeed. But he is also a British success story that most of you will never have heard of and he is a world-class sportsman who has been deprived of the chance of competing in an Olympics in his home town.

"I was absolutely gutted when I heard we hadn't got in," said Grant of the IOC's decision to not include squash in 2012.

"Everyone in the squash community was thinking 'this is it, it's our time'. But for some reason no new sports got in. It was a blow, a huge blow.

"But we've bounced back and we're still progressing. We're adding tournaments and making the game more approachable.

"The new majority system is one of the things we've tried. They're used to be just two referees and the arguments could drag on for ages. I think that hurt us with the Olympics because the crowd would get frustrated.

"We've also changed the scoring, we've lowered the T to make the game more attacking and we play on glass courts - I don't think people realise that, they think we're still playing on traditional plaster courts. It's a lot funkier now and much more pleasing to the eye.

"In this country, with football, cricket and rugby, it's so hard to get exposure. We've got to make squash more hip so youngsters get involved."

Breaking into the mainstream of British sport isn't easy - it's hard for a lot of sports, not just us

Nick Matthew
Nick Matthew, the first English-born player to win the British Open (the sport's most prestigious title) for 67 years, agrees with Nicol and Grant about the steps squash is currently taking but sounds a small note of caution.

"It's got to be a gradual thing," the 26-year-old world number eight said. "There is a danger of trying to do too much at once - it could backfire financially.

"Breaking into the mainstream isn't easy. It's hard for a lot of sports, not just us.

"So we have to make the most of our moments in the sun. That is why the Olympic decision was so disappointing.

"But we got to get on with what we're doing, and make sure we present a superb case for 2016. It will probably be too late for me but it would be something to hang on for."

As a man who is waiting for the Hue and Cry revival and an opportunity to roll the sleeves of my jackets up again whilst wearing Wayfarer sunglasses and no socks, I know exactly what Matthew means.

The 80s are officially cool again. It's about time we had another look at squash.



SEE ALSO
Squash 'deserves Olympic place'
23 Mar 07 |  Squash
Hitting a wall
15 Jan 07 |  Magazine
Rumsfeld master of 'combat squash'
02 Oct 06 |  Americas
Unknown legend
19 Jul 06 |  Squash
Nicol & Beachill win doubles gold
26 Mar 06 |  Commonwealth Games
Sports respond to IOC's decision
08 Jul 05 |  Olympics 2012
Squash star told thong's wrong
07 Jun 01 |  Other Sports


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