Squash has its entertainers – now ‘let’ the sport grow its audience
World Squash Championship 2013: Nick Matthew beats Gregory Gaultier in a thrilling final in Manchester. Tom Pilcher reports
He came. He entertained. He might have conquered had it not been for a sore leg.
Instead the World Squash Championship title went to England’s Nick Matthew, for the third time, in a rousing final at Manchester Central against world number two Gregory Gaultier of France.
Sunday’s thrilling battle, akin to a Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal slug fest, lasted nearly two hours when most matches at the tournament struggled to pass the 60-minute mark.
Some were wrapped up by the time fans had sunk a pint or two to wash down their food.
“It’s perhaps the greatest two hours of squash we’ve seen in this country for a long time,” said the on-court announcer, dressed like a boxing ring presenter for added razzmatazz.
Nearby stood glamour girls holding boards with the players’ names.
The occasion was missing one man. Egyptian Ramy Ashour, the world number one and defending champion, who succumbed to injury in his semi-final against Matthew as his 49-match unbeaten run stretching back 17 months went up in smoke.
“Absolutely gutting for Ramy Ashour today. It’s not the way anyone wanted it to end,”
Matthew, gracious in victory by acknowledging the inconsolable Gaultier in the post-final presentation ceremony, had tweeted a day earlier.
Matthew, just like Ashour and the others at the top of the game, mix thrilling play with good grace off the court. This likeability factor in an immensely watchable sport fell on deaf ears in September when squash was again declined Olympic status.
With Ashour present in Buenos Aires, squash suffered its third failed bid to take part in the Games for a first time. It had topped the International Olympic Committee vote in 2005 for inclusion but was not backed by the required two-thirds majority, then fell short in 2009.
At best, the sport will make its debut in a very distant 2028.
The pain lingers. Matthew found it hard to watch the London 2012 Olympics, knowing the only chance he would have to represent his country at such an event would be the Commonwealth Games.
“A kick in the teeth” was how he described his beloved sport’s quashed attempt in Argentina.
Undeterred, squash picked itself up and showed the world what it can really do here in Manchester.
“I feel privileged to be playing in this era,” said Ashour’s quarter-final opponent, Saurav Ghosal of India.
The 26-year-old Egyptian is the conductor. Ghosal called him the “Bullet Train” such is his speed on the court.
“It’s like ‘dude, you’re not supposed to go for that’,” added Ghosal, describing another audacious winner by the mercurial Ashour in their whirlwind 48-minute last-eight clash.
Off the court, the twice world champion speaks just as quickly as he plays.
Ignoring his sore hamstring and groin after defeating Ghosal, he talked to the crowd for around five minutes and followed that by standing in a cramped doorway, with a huddle of media around him, for nearly nine minutes.
“What’s the point of counting?” said Ashour, discussing his winning streak.
“If I lose all year but win here, then I’m world champion.”
Injuries and losing his unbeaten run pale into insignificance when Ashour speaks about his homeland, caught in the middle of political turmoil after the army removed president Mohamed Mursi in July, which sparked off violence in which hundreds have lost their lives.
“It’s very important for us as Egyptian players to represent ourselves outside our country in the best way, especially in these hard times. We leave the politics to the politicians.
“We just love our country. I’m always proud of Egypt, I’m always proud I was raised there.”
A documentary about squash in the north African country, which boasts five of the world’s top ten players, is coming out early next year. Like Ashour, it will be worth a watch.
“He’s the most original squash player I’ve ever seen,” said Ghosal.
Though he was not there on Sunday for the final, Ashour helped create a lasting impression on the spectators, the majority new to the sport’s charms.
“That atmosphere tonight surpassed anything I’ve ever seen,” said Matthew after winning his third world title in four years.
“I’ve played in the Middle East against Ramy and I’ve played in France against Greg, but in terms of my favourite that was the best crowd I’ve played in front of.”