Squash: British Open steps back from the brink as new format focuses on game's revival

Threatened by dwindling numbers of players and spectators, the biggest tournament in squash has taken a turn for the better, says Mike Rowbottom

A spontaneous example of such cross-fertilisation occurred at Manchester's SportCity earlier this week when Kelly Holmes passed through a doorway and entered a different world - the troubled land of the British Open Squash Championships.

The double Olympic gold medallist had been training with a group of prize-winning joggers in the main indoor arena of the English Sports Institute which nestles alongside the huge, strutted presence of the City of Manchester Stadium and was only dimly aware of something going on elsewhere in the building. "We all thought it was an aerobics class or something," she said with a grin.

Soon, however, the woman who has become a walking photo-opportunity since her glorious summer in Athens was standing on the other side of the door, chatting to England's former world champion Peter Nicol - for the benefit of an attendant snapper, naturally - signing autographs with a practised grace, and staring with some interest at the players plunging and straining within the showcased all-glass court.

Holmes may not have known it, but she was witnessing history - the oldest tournament in squash, contested since 1922, and an event which was for half a century the de facto world championship until the start of the professional era 20-odd years ago.

A championship dominated in turn by legendary figures - Hashim Khan, Jonah Barrington, Geoff Hunt, Jahangir and then Jansher Khan - has dwindled over the past decade to the point where, more than once, its very existence has been in doubt.

Imagine if, come next May, someone announced that Wimbledon would have to be cancelled. For the competition that has long fulfilled the same role within squash, that was almost the reality a couple of months ago until a rescue plan was put into operation by marketing man Paul Walters, who took over the rights to stage the event on the very day that England Squash was about to make its sad announcement, and swiftly instituted his old company, Dunlop, as the title sponsors for the next four years.

With the original booking at London's Royal Horticultural Hall gone to seed, Manchester City Council agreed to host the revived event at short notice in the building that serves as the National Squash Centre, although the main arena, where the 2002 Commonwealth Games matches were staged, was already booked - to among others, Dame Kelly Holmes.

The athlete's speculation about aerobics would have touched a tender spot within squash. As Nick Rider, Squash England's chief executive, pointed out, aerobic classes played a big part in displacing squash in the nation's leisure centres.

"The sport almost grew too quickly in the 80s and 90s," said Rider. "There were about three and a half million regular players in Britain at one point, and now that figure is closer to one million."

Tickets for the final stages of this year's British Open, which conclude on Monday, are sold out, but Walters is already planning expansion. Two years from now he wants to return to the larger venue next door. Next year he is considering venues in five other cities. He also intends to double the total prize-money from its present modest level of $52,500 [£35,900].

Already the format is being tweaked. Traditional seating has been supplemented by a more informal area with tables and a bar.

Jim Lord and Mick Woods, two players from the Skelmanthorpe Savoy Club where Lee Beachill - the current world No 4 who is seeded second for this event - began his career, were complimentary.

"It's the first time I've been here and I like the atmosphere," said Lord. "It's quite informal and relaxed. People can chat and not disturb the players if they want to sit at the tables."

Both questioned whether there would be sufficient numbers of seats for the weekend's action, however, as did club professional Masambo Selisho, a former British Open player. "I like to watch good squash, and you will always get that in this event," he said.

The line-up includes the bulk of the world's top players, including world No 1 Thierry Lincou of France, Beachill, and former winners including Jonathon Power of Canada, the reigning Commonwealth champion, and Peter Nicol of England.

"I think Paul has done a fabulous job to get the competition on at such short notice," Nicol said. "The British Open still has something wonderful about it. Give it two or three years and it will be the most important event in the world again."