High court judgements
After a visit to one of the calendar’s most prestigious squash competitions, Mick Owen finds poetry on the court and wonders how minority sports will make headway in the face of the all-powerful Olympic roster
Should you have occasion to circumnavigate Manchester on the newly completed orbital M60 you can not fail to be impressed by the size and frequency of brown tourist signs directing all and sundry to SportCity, the complex of facilities built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Having served its primary purpose, the complex is now hosting world-class sporting events and Manchester City. Even on a wet Friday afternoon the centrepiece City of Manchester Stadium, with its “Go on the B of Bang” sculpture out front, looking for all the world like an outsize laboratory model of an anabolic steroid, is an impressive sight.
The occasion that found me trying to squeeze into the car park full of BMWs, Audis and SAABs that separates the Blues’ new home from the English Institute of Sport and the National Squash Centre was the Dunlop British Open, at one time the most prestigious squash tournament in the world. Although its proximity to the behemoth soccer stadium makes it seem mundane, the EIS complex of outdoor track, indoor track, fitness studio and six glass-backed squash courts is of impressive scope, both physically and conceptually. For the Open the ‘show court’ had been erected in the indoor track area alongside a combined ‘equipment village’, catering and VIP areas. The atmosphere was less like a local authority leisure centre circa 1988 and more like an international sport-cum-entertainment venue – which it is.
My previous relationship with squash was not unlike a forced marriage in which the two protagonists are coerced into an intimate union only to develop a grudging respect and even affection for each other. In the 80s as a green duty officer in what would now be called a ‘community leisure centre’ boasting only a three-court hall and four squash courts I was expected to play, discuss and generally give the impression of liking squash rackets. At that time the sport said ‘aspirant middle class middle manager’, rather as mountain biking or a Manchester United season ticket does today. Suffice it to say I learned the rudiments and developed a marketing man’s ability to smile, nod and agree whenever nicks, boasts and good lengths were discussed. I even came to enjoy our in-house summer team tournament, which was little more than an excuse to drink over-priced bottled lager and flirt with other people’s spouses. But once I left that job the prospect of single combat in a sweaty box with someone who was probably going to cheat never called me back.
And so it was with a jaundiced eye but an open mind I found myself watching two elderly gents in ill-advised red t-shirts polishing and mopping the biggest gerbil cage I have ever seen and waiting for a second round match in the men’s main draw. From my somewhat cramped seat level with the referee, I was able to watch the desultory parade of mainly white men around the equipment village and hear the machine gun retorts from however many of the permanent courts were in use by the ‘masters’ competitions behind me. I began to think I had gone back in time. And then the music started.
They really have learned a lesson, have ‘squash’. A blast from something usually associated with a rugby league try or a Twenty20 wicket presaged the arrival on court of our MC who, if he wasn’t the mentor bloke from Bill and Ted, was his long lost twin brother. He in turn introduced the gladiators who then knocked up to the strains of Bruce Springsteen. Hackneyed? Yes. But mildly enervating and it was his latest release not something from, well, the 80s. It certainly did the job and the crowd, which numbered lots of people wearing ‘player’ passes and an entire primary school class, settled down to see how Englishman Adrian Grant would fare against a chap called Gregory Gaultier who, being both French and ranked thirteen places higher than ‘our boy’, had everything going for him.
I parenthesise ‘our boy’ advisedly as the audience completely failed to show any home-court frenzy. When they applauded, they applauded good play and when the pantomime arguing began about lets and strokes most people seemed to take a view based on what actually happened rather than where the protagonist came from. Now we really had gone back in time. I half expected a plummy home counties voice to offer the ultimate accolade: “Well played” or even just “Shot”.
It must be said I don’t think Adrian really had much chance. It was a case of men against boys and the plural is appropriate. Having lost the first set (foreshortened by the adoption of a rally point scoring system unheard of in my day when fitting five games into the forty minutes of court time allocated to the typical local authority squash player was sometimes a challenge), the young Englishman was joined at court side by an earnest looking man in a snow-white ‘England Squash’ tracksuit. Very crisp. Very smart. Very professional. He may even have had a clipboard. And Gerard; who advised him? Without wishing to parade national stereotypes, the two blokes who slouched down for a word with their confrere had clearly just left a pavement café where they had been drinking café au lait and smoking Gauloises. They were impossibly cool. Dressed not for the streets but for the boulevards in faux combat gear and denim, they were louche, studied and, despite being what the local kids would have called ‘fow’, somehow beautiful. From my vantage point I reckoned their conversation was largely about the Greek Cypriot first round loser in the women’s draw sitting in the third row. Meanwhile, the man in the Persil-sponsored kit was doing a lot of pointing and Adrian had a deep frown on his face.
Fair play to the lad, he actually managed to pull back to one-all and this time it was the turn of Gaultier’s coterie to point; well, shrug Gallicly; and pout a little bit. The third set was much closer that its predecessors and brought a turning point that, for me, shows why old heads survive at all levels of sport. With the game in the balance and both players giving the contest their full attention, the battle left the realm of the technical and tactical and entered the mind. Dancing a tango round the court, hugging the T, every move choreographed by their mood and their partner’s need, their bodies shaped to each others’, the players were more like lovers than opponents; with the Frenchman the older, the teacher, the taker. At 7-8 down Grant asks for a let. Gaultier raises an eyebrow at the outrageousness of the very suggestion. The referees – there are three of them – are simultaneously seduced. Grant has to choose and he chooses wrongly. Out of the court he comes. “Don’t your dare say that,” he whines. He doesn’t throw his racket admittedly but his toys, his dummy and his chance of an upset are all jettisoned from the pram. 10 – 8. Gaultier and the dance resumes. A fractional infringement and Gaultier’s shoulders demand a let. The officials confer; “Yes, let” and Grant again leaves the court to remonstrate. Gaultier smiles. Game over. Three days later the insouciant Gaul ran out a 3-1 winner against an Australian to take the British Open. Of course he did.
Squash has hardly changed. Like all real sports, it is played best when it is played in the head. Its rules are esoteric and complex, its language a barrier and its people parochial but at its highest level it transcends the physical and the obvious to speak directly to primeval centres of the brain. Can non-Olympic squash thrive in the sport system as defined by Derek Mapp’s Sport England while all around them courts are being lost to fitness suites, spas and the predictability of the local authority mind? Will its gallant few development officers and over-worked chief executive drive up participation or disappear under the weight of enthusiasm for all things 2012 and thoughtless modernity? The British Open is enjoying a resurgence after some years in the doldrums and is doing its best to live the 21st century dream. Let’s hope the rest of the sport is allowed to follow suit or those primary school children from East Manchester with whom I shared my Friday afternoon will have to make a journey across all sorts of class and economic barriers if they ever want to dance with Monsieur Gaultier.
Mick Owen is a coach, trainer, consultant and born-again rugby participant
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