Squash as a spectacle (The Sportstar)

The Under-21 World squash championship, held to facilitate the transition of players from the very junior level to the youth phase before many of them go on to build their professional careers, was also planned to make squash as much spectator and television friendly as possible so as to catch the attention of the International Olympic Committee, which is to decide next year on including one new sport in Olympics 2020. Over to S. R. Suryanarayan.

The way the Under-21 World squash championship ended in Chennai with music, LED lights and to a packed audience, not to forget the ambience — the Express Avenue Mall — and of course the edge-of the-seat competition, the World Squash Federation President N. Ramachandran must be wondering if anything more needs to be done to prove the popularity of the sport. The event, sponsored by the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu and the State Government (which announced a commitment to the tune of Rs. 1crore), is a new fixture in the World squash calendar. It is an event, as Ramachandran said, to facilitate the transition of players from the very junior level to the youth phase before many of them go on to build their professional careers.

The event was also planned to make squash as much spectator and television friendly as possible so as to catch the attention of the International Olympic Committee, which is to decide next year on including one new sport in Olympics 2020. Significantly, the Chennai programme was attended by the IOC’s honorary member Hein Verbruggen, who from all accounts, was really impressed. He also complimented the Squash Rackets Federtation of India for “putting up such a meticulously planned show.”

Aside from squash, those in the list vying for that single slot in the 2020 Olympics are baseball, karate, roller sports, softball, sports climbing, wake-board and wushu. “Twelve sports were considered, eight were retained,” IOC President Jacques Rogge had said. The final list will be put to vote in late 2013 at the IOC session in Buenos Aires.

Be that as it may, the final evening was something to remember for squash aficionados as also for the many uninitiated shoppers in the mall, who remained glued to the action in the all-glass court with LED lights to highlight the floor markings, a novelty as far as squash competition went. Add to that the chest-thudding music during the intervals as also the pop dances to the beat of the latest chartbusters! Well, there were many things unique in a competition ambience, but none of these really affected the ebb and flow of the contests, which were sharp right through. As the French player Luca Serme, easily one of the revelations of the tournament, put it, “all the din did not matter once I entered the court. What delighted me was the court which was simply superb.”

What better than a final in which India was one of the contenders! It was a historic moment that none failed to notice. For never has India featured in the title round of a world championship at any level and the moment when it arrived brought a spontaneous gesture from SRFI — a Rs. 5-lakh reward to the members of the team that comprised Ramit Tandon, Ravi Dixit, Karan Malik, Dipika Pallikal and Anaka Alankamony with Maj S. Maniam the Manager and Cyrus Poncha the Coach. Overwhelming favourite and top-seed Egypt with an array of world junior champions — Marwan El Shorbagy, Nour El Sherbini and Nour El Tayeb — as also the promising Karim Abdel Gawad, was the key contender and there was no stopping it from bagging the honours.

But then Egypt did not prove a runaway winner, thanks to Dipika Pallikal, the highest ranked player in the competition with a World ranking of 14. This petite player was performing in front of her home crowd for the first time since touching a new high in world rankings. And in a tough match, Dipika gave her fans many tense moments before downing Sherbini and levelling the tie score after Shorbagy had tamed a fighting Ravi Dixit in the opening rubber. Dipika’s win was something that heightened the pitch for the climactic deciding third match in the tie — between Ramit Tandon and Gawad. What was special in Dipika’s performance was the way she handled the pressure, producing some scintillating strokes on both flanks and topping them with wristy placings. She surely has risen in stature and the match provided ample proof of this. The control she showed in playing the drops, often finding the nick or the corner with geometric precision, was really noteworthy.

The crowd truly had its fill, more so as Dipika’s victory was wrested from the jaws of defeat — she survived half a dozen match points — and set the tone for the finale. If coach Poncha thought that Ramit would thrive on pressure then Egypt’s counterpart Amir Wahi was equally confident that Gawad’s cool approach would prove the turning point. “Gawad is champion material who will surely blossom once he finishes his studies and gets into full time professional squash,” said Wahi, who has worked with some of the best talents in the world, about this 20-year-old wonder. “In two years you will see him in the top-eight,” Wahi predicted and Gawad showed why he is rated high as with a serene countenance he wore down Ramit in what was a battle of wits till the last point.

Even if the event ended on expected lines with Egypt cornering glory, the World Cup brought to the fore some talents whom the squash world is bound to see more in the seasons ahead. Surme is one, someone who has modelled himself on the lines of France’s top player Gregory Gaultier. There is an air of confidence about him, equipped as he is with soft hands and admirable court coverage. It was his magical performance that underlined France’s grand win over England, an outcome which was considered rare from the European perspective.

That England avenged that in the placings (for third place) is a different matter, but that match also brought to view Charles Sharpes, who could well be England’s next big name. An U-17 and U-19 British Open winner, Sharpes is just 20. But, already, he has a handful of PSA tour titles to his name and his sharp on-court play, aided by power and precision, makes him a delightful player to watch. As David Campion, a former player and England Coach said, “But for the U-21 World Cup it would have taken longer for players of his ilk in England to represent the country.” Such then is the competition at the highest level in England.

While England and France provided a glimpse of the future, Australia was not far behind. The team’s star was not any player, but coach Rodney Eyles, a former world champion. A renowned coach now, Rodney said Australia had come with untested, raw hands and “the experience of the World Cup should do them a world of good.” Indeed if squash were to get the Olympic nod, we know who would be the players vying for honours, eight years from now.

For the record, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Germany were the others in the field of eight teams.


About Cyrus Poncha
I was born and lived in Bombay before moving to Chennai in 2001 to coach the Indian national squash team....what a journey its been!!

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