Making squash more watchable

In the world of tennis, the controversial Australian Nick Kyrgios, then ranked number 13 in the world, was left with an 8-week ban and a fine of $41,500 for “tanking” in a match at the Shanghai Masters, failing to make enough effort and engaging in ‘’conduct contrary to the integrity of the game’’.

How does squash measure up when it comes to the more borderline aspects of on-court behaviour? A few things were noticeable in November 2016 in Cairo, which hosted the Men’s World Championships and the women’s Wadi Degla Open. First, whether inspired by footballers or otherwise, the unsavoury practice of writhing around in agony after a minor bump (or no visible contact at all), then making a miraculous and complete recovery two minutes later, is all too frequent. As it was squash and not football, no-one was awarded a penalty kick, but a bit of a rest appeared to work wonders for some players.

Secondly, and perhaps with more potential impact on the image of the game, there were a number of cases of strange endings to matches — if not exactly in the style of Kyrgios, then variations on the same theme.

Most prominently, in the quarter-final against Ramy Ashour, Fares Dessouki was repeatedly instructed by the officials to find a better line to the ball and back to the “T”. Apparently overcome by the emotion of losing out on a number of decisions, after not being awarded a stroke when trailing 11–6, 17–15, 10–8, Dessouki offered his hand and conceded a match he still had a real chance of winning.

Dessouki at least was fully involved until he prematurely left the court. At least two other matches appeared to end with the losing player walking around the court for much of the last set, despite no particular signs of physical distress.

This is not to suggest that the players didn’t put on a great show overall at the tournament — they did, and sometimes a bit of controversy helps to keep things interesting. And on average, the amount of effort expended in absorbing and applying pressure in a competitive squash match is clearly considerable. And maybe the above examples are nothing more than a one-off “rush of blood to the head” in Dessouki’s case, and in the other cases, physical problems that weren’t apparent to the spectators. What’s interesting, though, is the massive contrast that’s immediately visible when you see that players are not pushing themselves. The above cases went mostly unremarked, and one reason why this might be the case is that it is commonplace to see players “throwing” sets, including in big matches, in big tournaments, in the showpieces of the sport. The Kyrgios case is scandalous because it is so rare to see a tennis player fail to make an effort. Even when a tennis player is losing, say, 5–1, with the opponent serving for the set, you will rarely see less than full effort.

Why the apparent difference between the two sports? Squash lacks the funding and global profile that tennis enjoys, but it seems to me that the practice of “throwing sets” is usually not a sign of a lack of motivation, but a rational response to the perverse incentives of the scoring system. When a player has lost the first game and is down, say, 8–2 in the second, there is obviously still a chance of winning the game, but the player in the lead may be able to adjust their tactics, calibrating their own physical effort and exerting pressure by going for shots or extending the rallies. That is, the trailing player has a choice between:

• Option I — doing more work than their opponent, with a poor chance of actually winning the game; and 
• Option II — going through the motions, surrendering the set quickly, and preserving energy for the next set.

When Option II is taken, it may be rational at the level of the individual player in that particular match, but for the sport as a whole, it’s a pretty unappealing image to be projecting. Here’s one example of a high-profile match where most of the games finished with one or other of the players walking.

At the moment, when the score is 9–9, the game is balanced on a knife-edge, as whoever wins the point is on the cusp of winning the game. Although in theory a point is a point and all points carry equal weight, the experience as a spectator (and as a player) is simply not the same when the score is, say, 2–2 or 3–4 or 6–6. Thus, for much of any given game, while the rallies may be exciting, the score is not all that interesting.

Contrast that with tennis — relatively speaking, the first couple of points in the game feel less crucial. But as soon as one player gets to 30, they are just one point away from serving for the game, while the opponent is only a point or two behind, so they have every reason to keep pushing. This is similar to a tight end of a game in squash, e.g. the 9–9 scenario, with the difference that only a proportion of squash games have a tight finish, whereas there is potentially a tight scenario in tennis every few minutes.

Okay, a single set in squash is worth more than a single game in tennis, but the principle is the same. At a given moment in a sporting contest, the level of interest or excitement or “entertainment value” is a function of:

(a) the quality of the action (which the players generate); and 
(b) the drama associated with how crucial or decisive the given moment is in the context of the match (which is generated by the rules — the scoring system).

The current brand of squash (and the technology that brings it to our screens) is probably more watchable than it’s ever been, but the scoring system continues to produce matches where the vast majority of the points just aren’t particularly crucial.

I don’t know how many people would agree with this — but I’m not sure how many people have thought about it, either. It’s not purely a case of being wedded to tradition, as obviously the scoring system has changed over the years — but not radically enough, such that a sport with long sets and few crucial moments remains just that.

What’s the alternative? I don’t know the full history of what options were considered by the governing bodies over the years, and what led them to conclude that long games played up to at least 11 were what the doctor ordered. I do remember reading, about 20 years ago, an argument for shortening the games (I think it was published, perhaps in Squash Player magazine, by Mike Hughes, an academic working in sport science and performance analysis). I don’t have the article, so don’t know if my own views coincide with those suggestions from back in the day, but personally I think 6 is a good number.

Here’s one proposal:

• First to 6 points wins the game, point-a-rally. (I.e. if the game is not already at a crucial/interesting score, it soon will be)

• Best of 9 games, i.e. first to 5 games. Two-minute breaks only every two games. (I.e. there are at least 6 + 6 = 12 points between breaks, similar to the minimum 11 points at the moment.)

• In a game, if it reaches 5–5, play to two clear points. (I.e. keep the drama of the current “deuce”-style system. As there would be nearly twice as many games as under current scoring, the number of deuces will significantly increase. If this causes matches to become longer than tournament managers would like, a variation would be to play e.g. no more than 4 deuces — i.e. once the score is 8–8, both players have game ball and the winner will take the game 9–8. “Cliffhangers” at 8–8 might be an interesting addition to the sport.)

There are obviously a number of other permutations which would shorten the games and generate more crucial moments, without significantly altering the length of the matches or the physical demands of the sport.

The die-hard squash player/spectator may be quite attached to the status quo, but different scoring systems such as the above shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, and it’s important to research what’s more likely to attract the vast majority of the population who aren’t already squash fanatics. Players above a certain age spent most of their lives playing “English scoring” up to 9, but managed to survive the switch to point-a-rally which has mostly taken place.

A sport keen to burnish its image on the world stage should pay attention to incidents like the Kyrgios case. When it comes to on-court behavior, the squash world should continue to monitor whether its own house is in order. One aspect of doing this is to look at what scoring system will produce a high number of crucial moments, while ensuring that both players have an incentive to keep pushing throughout each and every game.

In the modern world there are any number of things competing for our attention, and a number of sports are ahead of squash in terms of funding, and the number of people following the sport. From this position, the governing bodies, professionals and amateur players shouldn’t be afraid to experiment. It’s worth a try!

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