Off the Wall

Off the Wall

With the Club set to host the sixth edition of its TAC Premier Classic squash tournament this month, iNTOUCH examines the popularity of the sport at the Club and beyond.

Alok Rakyan smashes the ball against the front wall and dashes to the center of the court. His opponent rushes to his left to return the shot. Throughout the game, the two players dart around one another, lunging for the small rubber sphere.

At this evening’s Squash Social Night, the Club’s three courts echo with the squeak of shoes on wood and the occasional clatter of a racket tumbling to the floor. Several Members have arrived to play one another and put their skills to the test against two of the Club pros, former national champion Hitoshi Ushiogi and Australian Peter Amaglio.

At the end of his match, Rakyan, who is the former chair of the Squash Committee, sits down to talk about the sport’s current surge in popularity. “When the Club was still in Takanawa, we used to have about 20 members, including a few who rarely played,” he says. “However, after moving here, we took it upon ourselves to boost squash membership. Luckily, it worked and now we are up to 75 members, with around 60 playing in six leagues. And that’s without counting the 25 to 30 juniors.”

Rakyan is joined by the committee’s current chair, Pete Juds. “In South Africa, squash is not as popular as tennis, but for a 12- to 13-year-old, it’s easy to find inexpensive courts to play,” he says. “I must confess I never played seriously, even in college, and then I didn’t play for 25 years until I became a TAC Member six years ago. That was actually a big part of joining the Club because I heard they had excellent courts.”

As squash is an indoor sport, Juds says it is never affected by the weather and provides a great workout in just 30 to 40 minutes. “It burns calories like nothing else, and I know of many people who play during their lunch break,” he says. “But the most important thing is that it’s fun. And it’s very social. There’s a strong sense of camaraderie at the Club. We are all friends and it’s a very inclusive group of people. It doesn’t matter if you are a pro or a beginner, we welcome everybody.”

One of the Club’s more experienced players is Ron Tanno, a former Japan national player who is now the co-owner of a sports facility in Chiba Prefecture that features three squash courts. “My father played squash as an amateur,” he says, “so I was quite close to the sport from my childhood. I started playing competitively from university, where I won the national college championships, and even after joining Deutsche Bank I kept training. That’s when I joined TAC.”

Tanno, 37, believes there are few sports as interesting as squash. “Another thing I appreciate now that I have reached middle age is that it’s such an effective way to keep in shape. An average 30-minute game is the equivalent to running about 10 kilometers, but, unlike running on a treadmill, you never get bored.”

For all its selling points, squash has largely remained a minor sport in Japan. Three decades after the Japanese Squash Association (JSA) was established, in 1971, there were only around 100,000 players in the country.

“Squash’s popularity in Japan has been pretty much flat for the last 20 years,” Tanno says. “It’s such a great sport for an urbanized country like Japan, so it’s a pity that more people don’t play it. Even now, there are only 500 courts nationwide. Most of them are in private sports clubs and even those few are being converted for higher space-efficient activities like treadmills or aero bikes.”

Club instructor Amaglio, 52, a multiple tournament winner who has been coaching for the last 30 years, remembers the sport’s halcyon days. “There was a boom in the 1970s and ’80s, but since then numbers have dropped off,” he says. “I played many times in Japan, including in the now-defunct Japan Open that used to attract top players from around the world, but unfortunately it was dropped off the calendar because of a lack of courts. Here at the Club, we are quite fortunate to enjoy such a good program.”

Indeed, the Club has been a bastion of squash in Japan for many years, and its hosting of the annual, JSA-sanctioned TAC Premier Classic tournament, now in its sixth year, has further raised its standing as a hub of squash in the country.

“When we were thinking of ways to boost our program, we realized we had the best facilities in town,” Rakyan says, “so we decided to organize a championship that would be open to all professional players in Japan. Again, we were lucky to find several sponsors, many of whom are Club Members who actually play squash. With their financial help, we have been able to offer one of the biggest prize money [purses] in Japan and, in turn, attract one of the largest numbers of [competitors], including the top 10 [male] and [female] players in this country.”

Last year’s three-day competition, with its total prize money of more than ¥450,000, drew 125 professionals and was won by Ryosei Kobayashi and Chinatsu Matsui in the men’s and women’s categories. The tournament also features a “friendship tournament,” in which amateurs, including a number of Members, play against the pros.

The Club’s ultimate goal is to attract players from abroad. This would likely have a better chance of becoming a reality if squash were to secure a berth on the roster of sports in the Olympics. While the sport failed in previous bids, it is hoping to become an “additional event program” at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Tanno gives squash a 50 percent chance of becoming an Olympic event. “If this happened, it would be a huge boost for the whole movement, as it would create more public courts throughout the country and give more opportunities for people, especially children, to have a go at such an exciting sport,” he says.

Juds, however, says that squash can be difficult to follow for the uninitiated, while Rakyan admits that there are other sports with a wider international following. “In my opinion, the chances a sport has to be admitted to the Olympics are largely dictated by TV audience, and squash is not that big as a TV sport,” he says. “Having said that, it has reinvented itself in the last few years and has become more television-friendly. Now we have colored clothes, glass courts, a new point system to make it faster and the rules have been changed to make it easier to understand.”

Coach Ushiogi says squash faces some stiff competition for an Olympic spot. “Obviously, I hope [squash] will make it, but the Japanese sports authorities seem to be pushing more for baseball and softball, as the country has more chances to win a medal. In this case, it may be admitted as a demonstration sport.”

Now in his late 50s, Ushiogi took up squash at 19. He went on to become a 14-time national champion. “The fascinating thing about squash is that it requires a combination of very different abilities,” he says. “First of all, you must be physically fit, as endurance, speed and quick reflexes are important. Then, of course, you need to have good technique. Last, but not least, psychology plays an important part. This sport is so quick you don’t have time to think and have to come up with a different strategy every time in order to exploit your opponent’s weaknesses.”

While Ushiogi acknowledges that squash is not as popular as some other sports, he says the number of participants playing the truly global game is growing. “Right now, for example, the best woman player in the world is Nicol David from Malaysia. Among men, England and Australia have traditionally been top countries, but the player who is considered the best ever is Jahangir Khan from Pakistan. And right now, the real superpower is Egypt, with such players as Ramy Ashour and Mohamed El Shorbagy.”

Since Ushiogi began playing, Japan’s squash landscape has changed. “During my time, the average age was 28 to 30 years old, but now most members of the national team are 21 to 22. Admittedly, Japan is not very high in the world rankings, but I think our players only need more experience in order to climb up the world rankings, and if squash becomes an Olympic sport, it’s going to take off big time in Japan.” And, no doubt, at the Club.

Simone is a Yokohama-based freelance journalist.

TAC Premier Classic

Words: Gianni Simone