Rare opportunity rises for squash
New Zealand squash has a rare opportunity to revisit its halcyon days of the 1980s. I wonder if those running the sport realise it.
During its great era, players such as Susan Devoy, Ross Norman and Stuart Davenport were at the top of the world rankings and the sport boomed here. Sadly, those days are a rapidly-fading memory.
However, the world women’s championships, held in Palmerston North last week, were a huge success.
They were brilliantly organised by Grant Smith and his team and drew full houses.
All that was lacking was a victory by the home team.
Jaclyn Hawkes, Joelle King, Shelly Kitchen and Tamsyn Leevey eventually finished fourth, but went within a whisker of winning the world title.
In their semifinal against favourites England, the New Zealanders looked on track to pull off an upset.
With match scores locked at 1-1, Joelle King swept to a two games lead against the higher-ranked Laura Massaro in the decider.
However King gradually folded and went down 11-7 in the fifth.
But even with that gutwrenching defeat it was a good week for New Zealand squash.
King is one of the stars of the New Zealand sports scene, after her gold and silver medals at the Delhi Commonwealth Games and her strong showing all year.
Hawkes, ranking 12th in the world, is a great advertisement for the sport.
Kitchen, once ranked in the world’s top six, was playing her first tournament for 15 months, after giving birth to daughter Amalia in February.
Remarkably, she went through the week in Palmerston North unbeaten.
I can’t help feeling that the national squash association is missing an opportunity to capitalise on the profile of this trio.
They could do a national tour, playing locals and in exhibitions against each other.
This would serve to regenerate interest in squash.
Furthermore, the New Zealand Open needs to be resumed. It was a vital part of the national squash calendar until the early 1990s, but since then has been held only once.
What is required is bold administration, which has been lacking for the past 15 years.
In the 1980s, squash’s membership peaked at 60,000. Today the sport would struggle to muster half that number of registered players.
The game has not moved with the times.
Its facilities are old and uninviting and it is losing out to modern sports such as mountainbiking and triathlon.
Yet squash is a brilliant sport. In half an hour, players can get in solid exercise and the beauty of it is that there is always an opponent available of just the right standard.
I was involved last week in a squash hall of fame function in Palmerston North, in which stars of the past such as Charlie Waugh, Neven Barbour and Carol Owens, and former World Squash Federation president Susie Simcock, were inducted.
Among those attending were former players of the calibre of Devoy and Davenport.
It was a night of nostalgia and happy memories, but what was noticeable was that the room was full of generally older people.
What squash needs is to reemphasise its appeal to younger players.
That’s why it’s so important for its leading administrators to capitalise on the sport’s current high profile, instead of letting a golden opportunity slip.