This week is the most exciting week in the squash calendar – The World Championships. This season the massive event come to Manchester. I thought it would fascinating for people to have a glimpse into the life of a professional squash player at a major event… but this is not an account which you might expect. There is no glamour, there is no success story, instead this is a look at what it is like to be not one of the sports elite, but to be ranked near number 100 in the World, descending upon Manchester to battle the qualifying rounds with an aim to qualify for the first round of the main event; a first round which the Worlds Top 48 players enter automatically. This is 3 days in the life of Austrian No.1, Aqeel Rehman.
As stated, Aqeel is the Austrian No.1, and a record 11 times National Champion. His highest world ranking is 81. He is currently ranked at number 103. He lives in the truely beautiful city of Salzburg, at the foot of the Austrian Alps.
PSA tournaments at any level, usually offer free a hotel for all players in the main draw, and of course always offer this bonus for major events. Players in qualifying however, have to pay for their own hotel. Prize money is only offered from the first round of the main draw on-wards. World ranking points are only on offer from the second round of qualifying on-wards – so as you can see there is no guarantee of any money or any ranking points when you turn up to an event as a qualifier. To briefly sum up the finances involved for a player in the qualification rounds – travel to get to the event (flights are obviously expensive); travel during the event (taxis, trains, buses, although the World Championships are offering free tram use between the tournament hotel in central Manchester and the venue, which is at the Manchester City football stadium); accommodation and food.
The World Championships qualifying event began on Friday 8th December. Aqeel arrived into Manchester Airport on Thursday evening. In order to save £100 per night, Aqeel was lucky enough to have a friend in Manchester; his AWsome Sports sponsor, me! Often main draw players will be collected from the airport and taken to the hotel, but yes, you guessed it, no such luxury for the qualifiers. I collected Aqeel from the airport, saving him a taxi fare. After a good nights sleep, we left the house together to go to my squash club, where we had a 30 minute session on court, before heading to the tournament venue after I had finished my other coaching lessons.
Coming into this event Aqeel had been in good form. In his last 4 tournaments he reached 2 Quarter-Finals, a Semi-Final and one Final. He was playing at 13.00, against Canadian Mike McCue. Mike is currently ranked just 3 places below at 106 in the world. So even though this is a match Aqeel would be expected to win, the rankings suggest they are both a very similar standard. Aqeel did not play well and lost 3-1. Disaster. He leaves the event with no money and no ranking points, and what is possibly worse, Mike McCue gained more than enough ranking points to overtake Aqeel, as did several other players of a similar ranking.
His flight home was not until Sunday morning. We went home and we chilled out for the rest of the day. On Saturday morning I went out to coach for 2 hours while Aqeel stayed at home and decorated the Christmas tree with my children. A pretty unexpected morning for a Muslim! In the afternoon me and my daughters were going to watch Stockport County Football Team play as we had free tickets – Aqeel came too! So there he is, watching an awful game of lower league football in the rain and snow, when he had hoped the afternoon would involve resting after winning his second match in qualifying and wondering who he would be drawn against in the main draw – quite a different day to what he had imagined.
I took him to the airport at 7.00am on Sunday morning for an 8.30 flight. At 11.30 he had still not taken off! This delay caused him to miss his connecting flight from London Heathrow to Salzburg. There wasn’t a flight until the next morning! Poor Aqeel, not only had he lost his squash match, walked away with no ranking points and no money, and had to endure freezing cold football, but now he was told he had to spend an extra night in London so he could fly home to Salzburg which is only a short flight away!
So, there you have it – an untold story of what it is like to be a squash professional outside of the sports elite. Obviously Aqeel, like all the players ranked outside the world top 40, love what they do, they wouldn’t do it otherwise. They are all great players and exceptional athletes. Some have aspirations of making it all the way to the top of the world rankings and must begin at the bottom, while others are just striving to be the very best they can be and enjoying the journey this takes them on. Squash is a fabulous sport, and the PSA is a superb governing body, but squash is not as financially massive as sports like tennis, golf and football. The money and luxury does not tickle anywhere near as far down the ranks, so you can see life on tour can be a vastly different experience depending on who it is who’s living it.