Why squash ‘Down Under’​ went under!

Sarah Fitzgerald AWsome Sports
Squash legend Sarah Fitzgerald.

While writing last week’s column about international coaches, I mentioned legendary names like Rodney Martin, David Palmer, Stewart Boswell and Anthony Ricketts – so I naturally decided to research why Australia is no longer a powerhouse in squash.

Here’s a super-quick history lesson: From 1960, Australian squash players were collecting major trophy after major trophy for more than 40 years!

Currently, and disturbingly, there is not a single Australian male in the world top 100. Joseph White is their top-ranked male at 133 in the PSA rankings. Donna Lobban is the highest ranked female player at No.23 in the world.

It’s a far cry from an astonishing era when Heather McKay became the greatest squash player of all time in terms of results. She did not lose a single squash match between 1963 and 1981, which is absolutely bonkers! She won 16 consecutive British Open titles and is considered by many as Australia’s greatest ever professional sports star.

Geoff Hunt was the world No.1 player from 1975 to 1980, winning four World Open Titles in that period. He won the British Open eight times and developed a fierce rivalry with Jonah Barrington.

Their training regimes were just as famous as their epic matches, each one pushing the other to reach new heights of skill, stamina and endurance. Hunt dominated the game for long periods until Jahangir Khan came on to the scene.

While Hunt was the classical, consummate artist with a racket, Vicki Cardwell summed up the ferociously competitive nature of many Australian athletes. She was one of the leading players from the late 1970s through to the mid-1990s. During her career, she won the World Open in 1983, and captured the British Open title four consecutive times from 1980-83.

Let’s look at the Australian Squash Hall of Fame:

Sue Newman was the British Open champion in 1978. Rhonda Thorne was the world No.1 and World Open champion in 1981.

Rodney Martin won the 1991 World Open beating Jahangir in the final, having accounted for Jansher Khan in the quarter-finals and fellow Aussie Chris Dittmar in the semis. Martin was a three-time British Open finalist, once leading Jahangir by two games to love before succumbing to a relentless barrage from the mighty Pakistani.

Left-hander Dittmar became world No.1 in 1993. He’s considered to be the best player never to have won a World Open or British Open (four-time losing WO finalist, and two-time lost BO finalist).

Michelle Martin was world No.1 for four years between 1993 and 1999 and won three World Open titles and six British Opens.

Sarah Fitzgerald spent three and a half years as world No.1 and won five World Open titles in 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001 and 2002. She is one of the all-time greats. She is still giving back to the sport in a massive way, building courts in Australia and serving as a vice president of the World Squash Federation. She is also unbeaten in any Masters tournament since turning 35.

Rodney Eyles was World No.2 and won the World Open in 1997.

David Palmer was world No.1 and between 2001 and 2008 he won two World Open titles and four British Opens.

Carol Owens won the world title in Edinburgh in 2000 representing Australia. Owens would later switch international allegiance to New Zealand and won a second world title as a Kiwi in 2003.

Rachael Grinham won the World Open in 2007, and the British Open 4 times. She reached the World No. 1 ranking in August 2004 and held it for 16 consecutive months. Her younger sister Natalie won three Commonwealth Games gold medals and finished runner-up at both the World Open and the British Open. She reached the World No. 2 ranking in 2007.

Other notable Aussie players include (highest world ranking in brackets): Danielle Drady (1), Cam Nancarrow (2), Ryan Cuskelly (12), Cameron Pilley (11), Stewart Boswell (4), Anthony Ricketts (3, but he was one match away from becoming world No.1; won British Open in 2005), Dan Jenson (5), Paul Price (4), Byron Davis (14), Donna Lobban (13), Liz Irving (2), Anthony Hill (5), Brett Martin (2), Joe Kneipp (10), Chris Robertson (2), Craig Rowland (7).

Pretty impressive, hey?! Not to mention countless other players who were ranked inside the top 80 in both the men’s and women’s world rankings during these three decades.

Most of us know that in 2003 Forbes Magazine ranked squash as ‘the healthiest sport in the world’. They wrote ‘it encourages quick bursts of speed as well as lunges and quick manoeuvring, rewarding high cardiovascular endurance and muscle strength. Players dart across wooden floorboards dancing around one another!’. (I’m not sure about the dancing part – I’m a horrible dancer!). So why has squash been in decline in the UK and Australia ever since receiving this world renowned award?

In Australia, squash had a massive ‘boom’ period on the back of Heather McKay and Geoff Hunt’s success, fame and popularity, just like we had in the UK after Jonah Barrington became a household name.

In the 80s and 90s heyday, one million Aussies reportedly played squash regularly.

Sarah Fitzgerald explains how squash Down Under rode the wave of this popularity. “When I was growing up, everyone played squash. It was massive. Every suburb had a squash venue, so it was really accessible, and it was known as a blue-collar sport,” meaning it wasn’t expensive to play and was accessible to everyone, from factory workers to doctors.

In 2016 participation rates had dropped to below 100,000 people nationally – which saw the sport drop 10 places from its 2001 position in the ‘Most popular sports’ table. Currently, it’s marginally above ballroom dancing!

After a dramatic drop in participation comes the inevitable …. over the last 20 years the number of squash courts in Australia has more than halved. For example, I’ve discovered that Brisbane had 90 squash venues with 5,000 registered players in 1982. In 2018 that figure had dropped to 1,000 players over just 20 venues.

“About 20 years ago we had something like 1,300 squash courts around the country – now we’re down to about 580,” Sarah added.

You don’t have to be a genius to realise that this makes perfect business sense, to transform unprofitable squash court space and turn it into lucrative gym space. So, as much as we’d like to, we cannot really blame the individual establishments.

Sarah explains: “There was a time where Australia didn’t have a lot of sports to choose from, but as I’ve grown older I started seeing international sports come to our shores, like soccer, baseball and basketball. Kids have a hell of a lot more choice than I did.”

Heather McKay believes the lack of media attention has lead to the decline of the sport . She stated: “I’ve always said for a sport to be successful it had to be televised.” She also agrees with Sarah, saying: “We have too many sports here! Indoor tennis and indoor cricket came in, and then soccer came along.”

So, we can see that the UK and Australia squash markets are incredibly similar. We both rode a wave of huge popularity and have both seen a massive decline as the boom wore off.

Since 2016, Squash Australia have embarked on a massive participation plan to encourage new people to our sport. The governing body claim their playing numbers are increasing by 20,000 a year since the launch, which seems like a nice solid start.

Ex. English World No.2, Jenny Duncalf assures me that the elite coaching is in good hands with her and Stewart Boswell – so hopefully we’ll see more Aussie presence near the top of the world rankings again in 10-15 years. So watch that space….

England Squash, too, are doing some good things recently, and the SquashFit programme which started this week seems like a great idea and I’ve already heard some positive comments about Monday’s first session with Nick Matthew.

Squash Australia and England Squash need to do whatever they can to embark on a mission to rejuvenate squash in our countries, which they appear to be doing.

However, my issue is that squash governing bodies are always REACTIVE, rarely PROACTIVE. We’re in a situation now where we are seeing some good initiatives, but where were the good ideas 10, 20 or 30 years ago?

Yes, the excuses we have are genuine ones: there are more sports to choose from, we are also competing with video games, and squash has been historically difficult to broadcast. Surely we could have started to plan years earlier for a possible drop-off in participation. It’s like the levels had to drop so low before they were taken seriously, but obviously the longer you wait until you ‘react’ the harder the recovery becomes.

The technical quality of squash broadcasting was dreadful in the 1970s, 80s and 90s yet there was still a massive boom in participation, so putting the blame on broadcasting isn’t totally justified. I feel the media in general has not been serviced well at all in squash, which is why squash is considered a ‘small sport’. It’s only a small sport because our actions or lack of actions has made it into a small sport.

However, this can change, and must change quickly. We now have an exceptional product with SquashTV where the quality of live video is incredible. The scoring is more universal, easier to follow and certainly more viewer friendly.

Coupled with the excitement of the video referee and the phenomenal quality of play by both the men and women, it’s a sport worth advertising. We need to learn how to market our sport better, and we need to learn quickly.

My experience has shown that, when presented in the right way, people new to squash fall in love with the game. It is up to the squash industry to make this happen. If governing bodies can lead, individual venues will follow, and participation will increase.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, squash was showing signs of recovery in many parts of the world. Yes, numbers have seriously declined in the powerhouse nations of England, Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan, but prior to Covid we were seeing increased television coverage and growing numbers in parts of Europe (like Poland).

Egypt is especially exciting, and US squash is thriving within the college scene despite a fall in the number of affordable courts available to the wider public.

So it’s not all doom and gloom. And let’s wish every success to Squash Australia and their new CEO, Robert Donaghue.