Taking a sport public but is the public taking to it?

There were many standing around the arena and along the railings of the floors above in the mall, whose attention was captured by the big glass court and the almost metronomic banging noises the ball made. But at the same time, there were many who did not understand the sport but watched it like they would any other promotional event on a mall floor.

A World Junior Squash Championship match in progress at a popular city mall.   -  Amal John

“What is so interesting about this sport where they’re just banging the ball against a wall?”, asked a visitor at the Chennai’s Express Avenue mall, where the World Junior Squash Championship is being held.

While the initial rounds of the tournament were held at the Indian Squash Academy, but keeping with the Squash Rackets Federation of India’s motto — “Taking the sport to the public” — the rest of the tournament, which concludes on July 29, is being held at a popular mall in the city.

It is an attempt to address questions similar to the one the visitor had. But how far have these initiatives succeeded in taking the sport to the public?

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This is not the first time a major squash tournament is being held outdoors in a public space. The iconic pyramids of Giza in Egypt have been the backdrop of many professional tournaments. New York’s bustling Grand Central Terminal hosts the Tournament of Champions (a PSA World Series event) every year. And in Chennai, this is the fourth time the sport has been taken to the Express Avenue mall.

The idea of hosting a tournament in a public place to increase its popularity is not a naive idea. As tournament director of the World Squash Juniors Cyrus Poncha puts it, “Unfortunately, squash is not a well-known sport, not only in India but across the world. It's because of the lack of knowledge on the sport that people have. So, the idea was to make it more popular.”

But the implementation of the idea is paramount in getting the results people like Poncha wish for. An arena in the middle of a crowded mall may appear to be the best way to turn one’s eyes towards the game. But once you have their attention, what do you do with it?

There were many standing around the arena and along the railings of the floors above, whose attention was captured by the big glass court and the almost metronomic banging noises the ball made. But at the same time, there were many who did not understand the sport but watched it like they would any other promotional event on a mall floor. “I came here for shopping and I saw this. It is interesting to watch. But I don’t know the rules or anything so I can’t really appreciate it,” said Praneetha, a visitor at the mall, as she walked away after watching a match for around ten minutes.

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Some took to the initiative quite well. “I think it’s brilliant that they’re doing this to increase awareness about the sport. It’ll be really good for the sport,” said another visitor, Naveen. “The problem with squash is also the infrastructure,” he said. There lies one of the factors at the root of the problem.

In a country as massive as India, there aren’t enough public squash courts to encourage playing the sport. The elitist image too, that squash has acquired, maybe down to its accessibility. “Most squash courts in the country are in all of these clubs and armed forces campuses. In Chennai, the only public courts are at the Indian Squash Academy. What we need is land to build these courts on, which means support from the government. To build courts, there are always sponsors available,” said N Ramachandran, president of World Squash Federation.

There’s talk of a cycle that every popular sport goes through — success of a player/team the people can relate to, investing in the attention the sport has received, creating more awareness about it, more people taking up the sport and excelling in it to keep the cycle in motion till the sport reaches its pinnacle. “A lot of people start because of that a lot of people start because they have icons. Oh, so and so player is playing, I want to be like him, like her,” adds Poncha.

But the opportunities are limited for these inspired souls. The lack of facilities becomes a roadblock in carrying the sport forward. “For a country, like India we need to have at least 15,000 courts but there are barely 1,500. Unless we have more public courts, the game will not improve,” says N Ramachandran.

The courts at the Indian Squash Academy came up before the World Juniors were hosted here for the first time in 2002. Since then, there have been success stories like Dipika Pallikal and Joshna Chinappa. “It might happen. We might start seeing public squash courts like in badminton or tennis. It’s only a matter of time,” a hopeful Ramachandran added.