It’s becoming a growing belief that squash should already be in the Olympic programme and, with the final decision on its inclusion coming later this year, it seems to be in pole position to grab the solitary remaining spot at the 2020 Games.
Campaigns launched by the PSA, WSA and a number of independent organisations have highlighted what an attractive game squash is to both watch and play. Gone are the issues with it being a box with only one glass wall; now, audiences can be expected to watch the action from three angles, sometimes all four. The ball is easier to see and also tracked by technology, there are video reviews, impressive light shows. Squash courts are also set up in iconic locations with little notice, like Grand Central Station or at this month’s Canary Wharf Classic. It’s a sport that’s catching the eye like no other.
They’re also popping up, quite literally, in shopping centres across the country. “The Big Hit” is an initiative that allows regular members of the public to pick up a squash racket and have a go at something they may never have tried. It brings to mind the “Ping!” and Cornilleau table tennis campaign a few months ago, where ping pong tables sprouted up all over the country on busy streets and outside landmarks, giving me and you the chance to have a no-holds barred table tennis beatdown!
The similarities probably stop there, as the squash version is a little more sedate. Short of playing with decent rackets and part of a squash court, it’s nothing like playing the real thing. As captured in the linked BBC video (featuring British number one Laura “Massano”, a lacklustre attempt at catering to a squash audience if I ever saw one), partners and families are just enjoying a gentle little swing at the wall, aiming their feeble shots right at their “opponent”. The fantastic thing about playing squash is the sheer rigour it puts you through and the exhilaration of dinking that last little shot out of harm’s way (or smashing it to the back wall). “The Big Hit” isn’t going to replicate that feeling.
But, it doesn’t have to. As long as it’s even a little hit with casual sports fans and vaguely interested shoppers, it puts the sport ever more in the limelight. It’s surprising that BBC Sport even has a page for it (not that it’s updated all that regularly) when all others are Olympic sports or one’s already popular in this country.
Thing is, it deserves that recognition and more beyond it. Emma Beddoes won her first title since the 2012 Meadowood Pharmacy Open last weekend in a strong final against fellow Englishman Victoria Lust, winning herself the $10,000 prize. The event was organised by Laura Massaro and her brother, Chris Lengthorn, and the effects are already being felt. Sponsors have agreed to back the Lancashire event for five years and the town of Chorley has already declared that it wants to become a “squash hub”, encouraging schools to play more of the sport in PE lessons. It’s not an easy ask; squash may be becoming glitzy under the Egyptian pyramids, but funding a junior squash court isn’t cheap.
On the men’s side, world numbers two and three Nick Matthew and James Willstrop continue to push the sport, for Yorkshire, England and the whole world. Matthew was in an engrossing final with reigning world champion Ramy Ashour on Sunday in the North American Open and now the pair of them are set to do battle once again in the Kuwait PSA Cup, the third leg of the World Series. After that, they’ll be the stars of the Allam British Open, the first squash tournament to take place in a football stadium – namely Hull’s KC Stadium.
With showcases like that, plus the rise of women’s squash and the sheer professionalism of it all, you can see why squash is edging towards a place at the Olympics. Further initiatives such as Peter Nicol and Tim Garner’s plan to play seven matches in seven continents in seven days, as well as the backing of a certain Roger Federer will only help. They’ve got recent competition from the World Baseball Classic and the World Karate Championships, but it might just be down to who has the most support.
And in terms of Olympic medals, I think squash is Great Britain’s only chance. But what a chance…