The Rise of the Women’s Game – or “people only come to watch the men …”
It was brought to my attention last week that the reason why there was no picture of last year’s Female Champion on the banners of the British National Squash Championships, was because the “people only come to watch the men anyway!”
Now not to get too personal about the details and those concerned, I just thought it was such an odd thing to say. It got me thinking a little deeper and to be fair I can remember a time not too long ago where the competitive aspects of the female game were not most appealing. It seemed to be a formality on many occasions that one or two players would dominate events and really end up with the others struggling to put up any sort of fight.
Well in my opinion things have changed lots. As someone who has watched the game from very close quarters in the past 10 years, I would like to share my views why I think people are now just as entertained by WSA players as the PSA bunch.
[highlight]On average I believe all the girls playing in the top 30 are fitter than ever before.[/highlight] Body shapes have changed to be more muscular with lower body fat percentages. We have seen this in many sports, particularly athletics and tennis.
During the 1980s Martina Navratilova pushed on the fitness and conditioning levels in tennis (by investigating Basketball athletes) and it is fair to say Nicol David has possibly had a similar impact in squash. The girls chasing Nicol’s standard have certainly had to reassess their own standards of conditioning and many have adapted accordingly. The top 5 or 6 players, who are as equally inspiring role models as Miss David, then set a standard for others to reach if they want to compete. Consequently, the whole perception of what it is to look like a “top player” changes and of course this raises standards of training and expectations.
[highlight]It follows that more balls get picked up and rallies get harder to win[/highlight]. It follows that matches get faster and more explosive and it follows that skill levels have to rise. It also follows that mental toughness is pushed in areas of patience, risk taking, discipline and tolerance of lactic acid. Tournaments get harder to win because matches are tough from the first round. I have noticed the level of qualifying matches increase dramatically even in just the past two years. Those who have failed to keep up with the pace change and conditioning expectations are finding this to be true.
[highlight]The rise of the Egyptian female players has certainly moved the sport into an exciting direction.[/highlight] They are prepared to play with an attacking style and what seems like a “who dares wins” approach. This makes for new thinking about how women can play and also makes a great contrast to some of the more patient /disciplined approaches to the sport.
Omneya Abdel Kawy, Raneem El Weleily, Nour El Sherbini and others have forced players to think about different ways of playing, as have Alison Waters, Jenny Duncalf, Laura Massaro and Madeline Perry. Rachael and Natalie Grinham play their unique brand, Kasey Brown hers too. Low Wee Wern poses another type of problem and Annie Au produces a style of incredible accuracy. Joelle King is incredibly strong and powerful hitter, as is Camille Serme who plays a classic and effective French style. So the Diversity at the top of the WSA tour is fantastic and this is causing some amazing matches.
I noticed this most at the recent World Open in the Cayman Islands. The tournament was brilliant and exciting from the first round of Qualifiers to the Final. I was not alone in recognising even higher levels of athleticism, skills and all round fighting spirit. I didn’t see one match played in bad taste or one match where a player failed to commit all they had.
Madeline Perry and Nour Sherbini’s match highlighted the range of age, proving that preparation and squash ability will be the key factor, not when you were born. Some of the rallies I watched out there were simply not happening a few years ago in such a range of matches. I am not saying players of past eras were not individually better in some cases but I just feel that the depth and diversity is creating great contrast from much earlier on in the tournaments. In simple terms, there are more players who can beat each other on any given day and this makes everything exciting.
I think [highlight]Coaching has improved too.[/highlight] As a lecturer of Sports Coaching who enjoys research theory and practical application of it , I have noticed so much excellent coaching practice at WSA tournaments. Players have strong relationships with their support networks and it is this trust, faith and analysis that drives the process on. I really enjoy the way each coach has their own blend of wisdom and experience and in turn how this creates unique players. All coaching systems and philosophies are true but partial. No one is completely wrong or right and I notice coaches are willing to show flexibility in their methods as they see the game evolving. Sharing of ideas whilst retaining some key beliefs and values has certainly produced more wisdom and the players are benefiting. So are the crowds.
On the first morning of the London Olympic Games Athletics, the stadium filled to see Jessica Ennis begin her bid for Gold in the Heptathlon. Ennis was the so called “poster girl” of the Olympics and she did not disappoint in her performance. The public don’t discern when it comes to excellence.
The WSA tour has many poster girls and let us not forget that glamour and fashion plays a huge part in marketing and audience attraction for both genders. However, this would all count for nothing if the sporting product was not up to standard. Well we cannot say this when it comes to the Women’s Professional Squash tour. All the players are a credit to their profession and they are pushing boundaries by the month. Incidentally, The PSA tour is doing the same.
As it turned out, the Women’s competition at the British National Championships was well worth coming to watch (especially the final) and personally I do think Alison Waters deserves her place on next year’s banner.