Working up a sweat in a shopping centre

Mike Rowbottom watches the world's best squash players show off their skills in a tournament with a strange setting
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The Independent Online
After New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Qatar, the squash Super Series has shifted to a less cosmopolitan venue for its play-offs this week... Hatfield.

The theory behind this choice is that putting the sport in a non-traditional location will spark much-needed new interest. Thus it was that the world's eight leading players, including Pakistan's perennial world champion, Jansher Khan, found themselves in the Galleria shopping centre on a rainy Thursday.

Amid potted palm trees and pay-per-ride children's batmobiles, they laboured mightily on a perspex court set up in the central well of a building vast enough to house aircraft. Far beneath their feet - such is the centre's ambitious construction - ran the A1. Above their heads, a ring of intrigued faces stared down from the first-floor balcony.

Some of these unofficial spectators, like John and Joan Hogg, a retired couple from nearby Codicote, had come in the knowledge that the event was on. Both had played squash regularly in their youth, but even that did not guarantee an extended attendance, as Joan made clear. "I was just saying to John, `What do you think about this as a spectator sport, because I'm quite happy to go.' He said he just wanted to hear the score first."

But Brian Evans, a 55-year-old refrigeration engineer from Cambridgeshire, was already making plans to return at the weekend having noticed the event while on a shopping trip.

Evans had a special interest, as a player for Eynesbury Hardwick in the Cambridgeshire Squash League for the last 25 years. But he acknowledges that the sport has a fundamental problem which no amount of novelty venues can alter.

"Unfortunately squash is not a spectator sport, especially on television. It all looks quite easy watching from up here. You don't realise how fit you have to be to reach all those shots."

His experience mirrors that of the sport in this country since the boom years of the early 1980s. "We used to have 400 members. Now we are down to 60. I am playing all the people I used to play 15 years ago because the youngsters are not coming through any more. They don't want to get sweaty, I think."

Getting sweaty did not represent a problem for Chris Walker, England's world No 7, who defeated the world No 2, Rodney Eyles, in the opening round-robin match. But the playing environment, far brighter and busier than was ideal, took a little adjusting to.

"Once we are in the court it's like our office," Walker said. "We are in there and we do the business. Every now and again you notice someone walking past the side wall, but we tend to concentrate on the ball even harder than usual in a perspex court because it is not easy to see."

As the third most prestigious competition in squash behind the British and World Opens, the Super Series corresponds to the grand prix circuit in international athletics, and these play-offs, sponsored by Equitable Life, offer pounds 30,000 in prize-money - a respectable figure in a sport not overly endowed with cash. The 400 paid-for seats are sold out for the final days of competition tomorrow and Sunday. But the main target audience, as ever, is televisual - Sky is broadcasting highlights to 15 countries on Easter Sunday, reaching an estimated 100 million viewers.

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