Squash: Move towards gender equality in squash is great base to build on – Willstrop

James Willstrop.James Willstrop.
James Willstrop.
For the first time in the history of squash the two governing bodies running the professional men’s and women’s tours are set to merge.

It’s timely because the issue of equality in sport and the differences in prize money are more talked about now than ever before.

As happens now, the men take the lion’s share of the publicity, profile and money, and it’s all self-perpetuating. But squash is one of the sports which is making active steps to overthrow these unjust discrepancies. The US Open Championships in Philadelphia recently made the prize money equal and Dr Assem Allam, promoter of the British Open, is set to do the same next year.

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This won’t change things overnight; cultures are different around the world. In certain areas in the Middle East for example, where squash is strongly represented, women are not always allowed to even play sport, let alone earn the same as men in doing so.

I’ve been on the board of PSA for a couple of years and they, its members and the members of the women’s tour have come to believe this merger will have positive long- term rather than short-term implications.

Those who don’t agree in principle question how working as one will affect the sport, and some wonder if it could have a diluting effect.

But having the two together at major events brings a richness, variety and more dimensions to the scene. As in tennis, the games played by the women and men are vastly different, and each generate different reactions from audiences. Perhaps a Nicol David can appeal to a young girl player watching squash for the first time, and inspire her far more than any male player could. Or it could be the other way round.

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To decry the women’s game because they don’t have the innate physical strength of a man, is a petty summation. The women’s tour is pure class at the moment – Nicol David is one of the greatest racket players ever to have lived and there are a gaggle of young players from all corners of the globe, great to watch, and making a ferocious onslaught on the established players. The athleticism, skill and dedication is, of course, no less than the men.

Some of the best matches in squash this year were played by the girls. Nicolette Fernandes’ match against Sarah Kippax in the British Open and the former’s match also against Laura Massaro in the Commonwealth Games were incredible displays of guts and acrobatics. The women’s final in Hong Kong between Nicol David and Nour El Tayeb capped a competitive event for the girls, and the pair’s silky skill and pure movement redeemed finals day after the near farce that was the men’s final.

The merger might not change things overnight, but could be the right place from which to build. We are told that it should help in terms of the dreaded, never-ending Olympic inclusion fiasco, and if it does make a difference, then it is only right that the IOC should seek to promote equality in sport.

So, though squash is working hard, there is still ground to be made. But the other sports? Tennis is in the best shape together with several others, but many: football, cricket, rugby, golf and snooker included have major disparities in prize money. It is significant to also mention the lack of media and public interest. Male premiership players are household names, but many football fans might be hard-pushed to name top female players.

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Also inexplicable is the scarcity of women doing jobs within men’s sport. How rare it is to see a woman coaching a man or a men’s team in professional sport. How many female referees are there in men’s rugby or football? Is there a reason for this? Why is it assumed that women can only coach women?

Andy Murray was criticised and questioned almost immediately for appointing Amelie Mauresmo as his coach. Shame on those who did: first for talking too soon and not even giving her a chance, and second for instantly denouncing the possibility of Murray having a woman as his coach.

It is all quite baffling. We think we are so far removed from the glaring and gross situation that existed, in the times of the suffragettes, a hundred or so years ago, but in reality we are nowhere near where we should be. And it’s not just sport. Female politicians, actors, or budding entrepreneurs have to deal with the same issues.

This merger is about adjusting the perception of the public, hopefully allowing the women the platform they require, and boosting the men’s game and the sport. Then as has happened in tennis, women will gain the respect they deserve.

Let’s hope another hundred years down the line they will be thinking just how backward we all were in those funny times, and that articles like these will no longer be written.