Squash banks on a show of Power

Iain Fletcher finds the colourful new champion is vital to his sport
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The Independent Online
"THE PROBLEM with squash is that for the last 20 years it has been dominated by two guys who shared the same surname, Khan, the same country, Pakistan, and even their first names started with the same letter. Hell, they might as well have been the same person. It's been boring for the fans." But Jonathon Power, 24, the speaker and, since his victory over Scotland's Peter Nicol in December, the world champion, intends to change all that.

At present playing here in the England v Rest of World series that replaced the sponsorless, postponed British Open, Power has enjoyed the attention of being the first North American to reach the game's summit. "Believe me , I'm into this world champion stuff," he said.

But it is more his personal style that will shake the game to its very roots and possibly drive some of the more staid and pompous people in the sport up a different four walls.

Power is loud and confrontational, often hurling abuse and comments at referees in his unmistakable transatlantic twang with the same panache that can deftly alter the direction of play in mid-stroke. Referees often wilt under his verbal onslaughts and yet just like the man he is most often compared with, John McEnroe, he is sublimely gifted, or as his detractors put it, touched. He is certainly different.

Squash is universally regarded as a sport which requires almost superhuman fitness. Universally that is except by Power. "Ah, come on, I hate hard work and fitness of any kind is hard work. The way I see it, the player that controls the ball controls the game, so I work on shots and with the ball. I don't wanna run so I practise ways of making me never have to run."

And yet it could have been so different. Born a "military brat", Power was shunted around Canada until his parents decided the only way for their son to learn was for him to go out on his own. Such sentiments are echoed by exasperated parents around the globe, but Power was only 14.

"My parents rented a baseroom flat for me in Toronto and I had to go to school and sort things out for myself," Power said. "Well, I didn't really bother with school but I did get a sponsorship with a local restaurant so at least I ate for free.

"And I was helluva popular with the 17 and 18-year-old girls because I had my own place so you could say I kinda grew up pretty quickly, and had some fun doing it. But I trained real hard at squash because that is what I was interested in. People always think I was a bit wild but I didn't have the normal school social life. I turned pro at 16 and went around the world mixing with adults, so of course I'm gonna be a bit different."

Being a bit different involved an eager interest in the rave scenes in every city he visited and sampling the nefarious substances that accompanied them. Once, late for a world team championship match against Pakistan, he was pleaded with by the Canadian coach to "at least stretch or do something to show interest". Jansher Khan watched with amusement as Power began to bounce on his toes only for a packet of cigarettes and a lighter to fall out of his top pocket.

Stories like this abound about Power but his unconventional attitudes make him an easy target. Certainly Power is no saint, but he is a refreshing change in an increasingly sanitised world. "Hey, I wanna be great at squash but I wanna have some fun as well, and I think I can do a lot for squash but it might take me five years to help turn this game round," he said.

"Look at Jansher. He could have done so much for the sport, but he didn't work to raise its profile at all. He would turn up with his entourage and leave immediately at the end. I wanna try to get people enjoying squash. It is a great game but we need personalities and profile."

Since December, Power has been transformed from wild boy to poster boy of the sport and, with a passionate rivalry between two or three top players and Power toppling Nicol as world No 1 at the start of May, squash could be set for a few years of intense competition for the No 1 spot and major titles. It needs it, and with Power it is likely to be a fun ride.