The Rise of Squash
07 Oct 2013
Malaysia has produced her share of world-class squash champions. Jon Chew finds out how it all started, and the promising future of squash here.
As you walk into the National Squash Centre at Bukit Jalil and turn right, you’ll stand before an ‘altar of worship’. It’s a shrine that reenacts the life and journey of Nicol David, the current world’s best women’s squash player, and with a record seven World Open titles, one of the greatest to have ever stepped into a squash court. The gallery shows pictures of Nicol’s schooling days in Penang, her two World Junior wins, and how she became one of the country’s most famous athletes.
This tribute can be found inside one of the country’s top sports facilities; 10 squash courts can be changed into eight doubles courts with the press of a button, while around 1,000 spectators can sit and watch the matches or sparring sessions taking place. This complex, built in 1997 for the Commonwealth Games the subsequent year, is a symbol of the incredible developmental work done by different parties in Malaysia to make this country a hub for world-class squash players.
“We, as the whole Malaysian squash fraternity, are quite keen on keeping Malaysian squash as one of the sports Malaysia excels in,” says Allan Soyza, the director of coaching at the Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia (SRAM), when met at the premise. Appointed in 2011 to the post, Soyza’s responsibilities include overseeing the whole coaching structure of squash in Malaysia, and the development of its players under his charge. “A lot of people like to say, I’ve got a very important job,” he says with a laugh.
The growth of squash can be traced back to the 1998 Commonwealth Games, a seminal moment in Malaysia where it was the first time the games were held in an Asian country. In an effort to boost the competitiveness of several sports in time for the games, squash was one of the sports earmarked for growth in a programme launched in 1992. Aside from this facility, a significant amount of funding was poured into the development of players, and the result was a generation of youngsters that came through the system: world top-ten players such as Ong Beng Hee and Azlan Iskandar, and precocious young girl by the name of Nicol David.
“It was what kickstarted it all,” says Soyza. It has led to a structured, three-tiered system of identifying and grooming new talent. The first occurs at the grassroots level; 12 active state affiliates of SRAM run junior programmes that help unearth new talent in places like Selangor, Sarawak (which operates three district squash centres) and Kedah. “At least what we have are centres where anybody around that centre can have an opportunity to pick up squash and showcase their talent,” says Soyza.
Interested young players receive concerted training from the 20-odd full-time coaches strewn across the nation, and if they start winning state-organised competitions (where youngsters can compete in a wide range of age groups, from under-nine to under-19 tournaments), will be tapped for national junior competitions. These important events have received welcomed support from various groups like the CIMB Foundation, who contribute around RM2.7 million annually to the development of the sport. The most talented ones, of course, will join the back-up or elite squads, of which there are currently around 20 team members.
The work doesn’t just stop at talent-spotting. The programme includes element of sports science training provided by the National Sports Council that encompasses video analysis, nutrition and the psychological development of the athlete. “For kids coming through at a very young age, we try not to focus too much on squash issues... There are sports science elements already in grassroots programmes, and we look at it and study how to incorporate certain kinds of games to develop coordination, let’s say,” says Soyza, who believes in a unique way of building the sport’s fundamentals into those at a tender age. “I break fundamentals into “fun” and “mental”. It’s very apt for kids who like to do fun things, and for kids at a young age, nothing is impossible.”
But has it worked? Will there be someone to take on the mantle of championship-level squash when the likes of David, who is already 30-years-old, leave the sport?
The proof is in the results; 23-year-old Low Wee Wern is a product of this squash programme, and is currently the world’s sixth-ranked female player. The hope, however, rests on the growing shoulders of the very young, such as 17-year-old Asian Youth Games double gold medallist Vanessa Raj, 15-year-old two-time British Junior Squash Open champion Ng Eain Yow and 17-year-old Asian Youth Games silver medallist Syafiq Kamal.
“We’ve always had talented squash players coming through. A lot of it now depends on how we nurture them, and also how they develop individually. It’s easy winning in the junior ages, but what I’d like to see is how they handle setbacks. How you handle setbacks tells you a lot about a person,” says Soyza.
The path through the future isn’t easy, Soyza reminds. There are obvious budget constraints, and the task of convincing these youngsters to pursue squash full-time instead of taking up scholarships to study overseas “is gigantuous.” And all this without succumbing to the pressure of following in David’s footsteps.
“Nicol’s world benchmark is up there,” says Soyza, placing his hand high above his head for emphasis. “In the world of squash, she is a legend already.” Having had the privilege of seeing Nicol play at the age of six, Soyza always knew she was destined for greatness. “She had this natural stubbornness. She didn’t want to lose, it was a competitive mentality from a young age. And she was very gifted physically, as a girl she could cope with the boys... she had the x-factor.”
As we sit and talk, grunts, sneaker squeaks and the sound of the squash ball slapping repeatedly against the wall can be heard on the courts outside. Ironic, because as we chat, Nicol David is training with national squash coach Peter Genever, honing her craft, swinging her racquet, and paving the way for the next generation of Malaysia’s squash talent.