It might still be associated with the 70s and 80s, but squash is fast becoming a hit with younger generations, with some young rising stars aiming for the professional circuit.
“We might not be coming back with the mullets, the retro squash rackets, sweatbands and the short-shorts but certainly, if you walk into some sports centres today, it’s like going back to the ’80s,” Squash Australia chief executive Rob Donaghue said.
Back then, squash was the chosen sport for thousands of people of all ages, a fast-paced ball game that almost anyone could have a go at, requiring nothing more than a racquet, a ball, a pair of sneakers — and a squash court.
But that wasn’t a problem, there were distinctively shaped squash court buildings all over the suburbs.
Rob Donaghue says young people are taking an interest in squash after participating in school programs.(Supplied: Squash Australia)
“Squash was the sport on every street corner,” Mr Donaghue said.
“It’s short and sharp; in 45 minutes you get a workout, you can play it with friends, you can play it with your partner, you can play with your kids, even families can come and play together as well.
“You can pretty much walk down the street and ask someone about squash, and they’ll say, ‘oh yeah, my parents used to play that’ or ‘my grandparents used to play’ or ‘I used to hang around a squash court as a kid with my family’.”
While the sport has languished over recent decades, Mr Donaghue said during the pandemic participation has risen.
“We had a 3 per cent increase in participation across the board, so that’s juniors all the way through to seniors and masters which was pleasing given the fact that COVID had a pretty strong effect and shut down a lot of those [gym] businesses, particularly in Victoria for a long period of time,” he said.
“There seems to be a real renewed interest in the sport more broadly, and particularly, in the younger generation.”
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.Dean Williams wins the WA Men’s Open in 1987(ABC News Archives)
Mr Donaghue said they were happy to appeal to people’s memories of good times now past.
“Around the Commonwealth Games this year we’re launching a Squash for All campaign and a big part of that is playing on that sense of nostalgia.
“So it’s going to be a blast from the past for some people.”
Land boom to blame for squash decline
Mr Donaghue said the sport’s popularity in Australia began to decline when privately owned suburban squash centres were sold to make way for development.
“A lot of the squash centre operators in the heyday were in their 40s and 50s. They retired and that [real estate money] was their retirement, or superannuation fund,” he said.
Australian Dean Williams finished runner-up at the 1982 World Open after losing in the final to Jahangir Khan.(Supplied: Dean Williams)
Mr Donaghue said the decline in squash participation also coincided with the rise of group fitness classes.
“Squash also lived in a lot of multi-sport venues as well, and with the advent of pilates and yoga, squash courts got transformed into studios for those sports,” he said.
“They’re able to put 10 or 15 people in that space in an hour as opposed to two people, so the economics of it made sense to those multi-sport operators.”
Reflecting on the glory days of squash
Former world number two Dean Williams said he went against the grain and his parents’ wishes by heading to the United Kingdom at just 19 in the 1970s to break into the professional circuit.
“I couldn’t do it in Australia, I’d already been Australian champion,” he said.
Dean Williams says playing squash in the 1980s were some of the best years of his life. (Supplied: Dean Williams)
“A couple of mates [and I], we teamed up and we literally backpacked around Europe and had a ball; played in every squash tournament we could possibly think of — win, lose or draw, it didn’t matter.
“And then I cracked the top 10 in the world. From ’80 to ’86 I had the greatest six years of my life.”
In 1982, Williams finished runner-up at the World Open, losing in the final to the legendary Pakistani player Jahangir Khan.
“The 80s were the heyday because it was the perfect storm of courts being built everywhere and at the same time the all-glass court came into being because they figured out a way of actually getting 5,000 people to view the sport,” he said.
Williams says children in West Australian schools think squash is a new game.(ABC News: Kate Leaver)
“They were putting the court in amazing positions around the world like under the Eiffel Tower, under the pyramids, Grand Central Station in New York — the places I’ve played have been amazing.”
Williams agreed the number of squash centres around suburban Perth had dwindled since the 1990s.
“I could tell you 60 Perth centres which are now flats or units,” he said.
“They were all very, very busy courts, but unfortunately, the people that owned them were at an age where they wanted to sell up, cash up and be on their boats at Rottnest.”
Young players embracing the game
Williams said WA Squash was now trying to promote the game in schools.
“When I go around to the schools, kids are saying, ‘This is a new sport’. They’ve never heard of it,” he said.
“They’re going home and telling their parents about this ‘new game’ and of course, the parents have played squash.
“So we’re now taking it to the schools and finally having a resurgence of kids playing.”
Under 19’s Australian number one Erin Classen hopes to follow in Williams’s footsteps by entering the professional circuit in England next year.
Erin hopes to have some success on the professional circuit like Dean did in the 80s.(ABC News: Kate Leaver)
She started playing at age nine and was hooked but had to explain the sport to friends.
“I just love how it’s so competitive and fast,” the 17-year-old said.
“I coach juniors and it has grown a lot, it’s great to see more girls coming into the game too.”
Junior champion Oscar Curtis also hopes to break into professional squash with his sights set on the Australian Junior Open and the World Junior Championships.
He was only the second WA player to claim the U19 Champion at the Australian Junior Championships, after Dean Williams in 1974.
Oscar Curtis has his sights set on the Australian Junior Open and the World Junior Championships.(Supplied: Oscar Curtis)
“I started playing when I was about six years old,” he said.
“There were a lot of kids playing when I started, but then saw a decline over the years with courts closing.
“But over the last few years junior programs across the clubs have been successful in increasing numbers.”
Squash fights for Olympic debut
Squash has been a Commonwealth Games sport since 1998, and despite the Professional Squash Association putting in multiple bids for previous Olympic Games, it’s not an Olympic sport – yet.
In the past, the sport has been edged out by sport climbing, breakdancing, and even skateboarding.
Mr Donaghue said there was a renewed push for the sport to be included in the Brisbane 2032 Olympics.
“We’re just about to kick off a campaign for Brisbane so we certainly flagged our intentions with the organisers and the International Olympic Committee,” he said.
“The sport needs to evolve, and this is about how, from a TV point of view and a spectator point of view, how people like to consume sport now.
“We’ve got the glass court, which is a really spectacular way in which the game can be played.”
Mr Donaghue said the main thing was to make the point that squash was a sport for all.
“Our Squash for All campaign will be about how we demonstrate to people that squash is a game for all but also a game that you can play anywhere,” he said.
“We’re almost distilling it back to squash is hitting the ball against the wall.”