In many respects the contrasts could not have proved greater. From the low level hubbub of central Chichester to the tranquillity of the almost picture perfect suburbia of south-west London. From possessing a slightly stronger line-up than the weakened Bexley equivalent to facing up to a powerful five representing the league’s defending champions. From the homely confines of the benches behind the glass backed main court to an arena used for a prestigious PSA World Tour gold tournament. From parking one’s vehicle in a vast, adjacent municipal car park to stopping one’s car in the visitors’ lane at the entrance gate waiting for the attendant to activate the barrier. If one felt a little conspicuous approaching the reception to Chichester Racquets and Fitness Club then this proves a different level altogether.
Ordinarily entrance without prior appointment would likely be declined but such formalities are temporarily dispensed on a handful of evenings during the year due to the advent of the local Tennis club hosting professional Squash events. Thus, tonight is one of St George’s Hill’s five home Premier Squash League matches of the current campaign and entrance to the eponymous, near thousand acre private estate is readily granted once one declares the reason for their appearance.
Once through the gate one is keen to remain as inconspicuous as possible as one’s journey heads along the manicured private roadways. Discretion is very much the order of the day and driving around aimlessly would certainly not prove to be good form. Thus, one is rather relieved to locate the club and dispense with one’s vehicle in order to finally enjoy the surroundings and the upcoming Squash fixture.
Post a pleasant meal in the club’s bar there is time to explore the set up for the evening before proceedings begin. Unlike the match at Chichester a month previous, tonight’s matches will be played on the main glass court. Said court is that which has played host to the Channel VAS tournament for the past four years, the successful PSA World Tour gold event that attracts a fine selection of the world’s top players, featuring a multi-coloured glass surround and seating for at least a couple of hundred spectators on three sides. The scene isn’t quite as homely as Chichester but still possessing a very intimate ambience as all the seats reside within just a few feet of the court itself.
For the host club a seventh consecutive match victory at the venue is required to boost their aspirations of qualifying for the end of season play-offs. The six team South Division has very much taken on a split persona with the top three clubs, Tradition @ RAC, Welsh Wizards and St George’s Hill, separated by just three points. In contrast, visitors Chichester reside in the table’s final position but are just three points away from Bexley in fourth.
Victory for the Sussex club at conclusion of tonight’s contest will arguably require a greater performance than a month previous against the aforementioned Kent based club. Tonight’s St George’s line up may not quite be at full strength (world number one Mohamed El Shorbagy has appeared for the London club on three occasions so far this season but is absent for this particular tie) but the presence of world number twenty-one Tom Richards and seasoned Spanish campaigner Borja Golan (ranked just eleven places lower) provides the hosts with a significant advantage.
Both will appear on court a little later in the evening as the opening match features the fourth string contest between Robbie Temple and Miles Jenkins. Victory over Curtis Malik in the previous round against Bexley had afforded Jenkins a most impressive season record of five victories from six matches played and the young Englishman begins well during close opening exchanges. Temple, employing a double-handed back-hand shot and serve akin to English legend Peter Marshall, soon opens a comfortable lead though and resists a brief Jenkins comeback to claim the opening game. Disappointingly for the Chichester player the second game is almost a carbon copy and Temple eases to a two-nil victory and early points for the host club.
Jenkins’ defeat arguably leaves the visitors behind the hackneyed eight ball considering the world ranking disparities in the forthcoming matches. In contrast, an early victory for the Sussex club could have provided the foundation for a potential surprise victory. Rapidly following the Temple-Jenkins contest is the women’s match between Jasmine Hutton and Lauren Briggs. The women’s match can potentially witness the greatest disparity in world rankings between the two players due to there being just the one contest. Any difference in rankings can be partially ironed out across the four men’s contests but one match does not afford such luxury. Thus, in the two contests between the Welsh Wizards and Coolhurst during the current campaign world number ten Tesni Evans has played Margot Prow, ranked over two hundred places lower than the Bangor resident. Tonight’s match is not quite so clear cut due to Briggs no longer possessing a PSA World Tour ranking but one suspects that Hutton possesses a distinct advantage.
Whatever the numerical detail the early exchanges are soon halted by a moment of hilarity after a Briggs shot caroms out of court. The nearest spectator attempts to return the ball over highest part of glass, only for the ball to deflect off of the top pane and become stuck in the overhead lighting. Smiles and laughter ensue and a second ball is warmed up inside of ten minutes. The interlude provides brief respite to a dominant performance from Hutton as she strolls to the first game for the loss of just a trio of points. Back on court almost thirty seconds before the required return at the conclusion of the two minute interval, Hutton continues in the same vein during the second game, playing a fine selection of boasts and deft drop shots to claim overall honours for the loss of just nine points. As commentator extraordinaire Joey Barrington would say during one of the PSA TV broadcasts: “that’s good Squesh.”
Two matches into the evening’s tie and certain aspects of professional Squash again make an impression. Of little doubt is Squash’s hypnotic attraction; once lured in one is intrigued and cannot take one’s eyes away from the action. Certain aspects of one’s interest are obvious but one ponders whether the sport delves a little deeper into one’s psyche. Unlike other sports there is an almost claustrophobic ambience to Squash, such is the small, confined space in which a match takes place. Perhaps the sense of being trapped inside the box, the sense of being unable to escape provokes a deeper side of one’s curiosity. The length of some rallies as the ball pings back and forth around the walls could further such a feeling.
Length of rallies is paramount during the evening’s median contest between Carlos Cornes and Tom Walsh. The opening game proves a close affair but two consecutive stroke decisions edge Cornes into the ascendancy. Unforced errors from the Spaniard allow Walsh to restore parity at ten points apiece but Cornes edges ahead again to win the game.
Upon the resumption in play, Walsh again keeps apace with Cornes but an outrageous bagel winner from Cornes begins a four point streak for the Galician and he closes out the match for the loss of just one more point as the home team claim the tie in the quickest possible time.
The match may have concluded in reasonably quick time but it does afford one the opportunity to experience the main court at St Georges Hill where spectators can watch the play from behind three of the four glass walls. Most naturally opt for pews behind the back wall but when sat next to right wall one can fully enjoy the astonishing noise of the ball crashing into the front wall, the audibles significantly louder than equivalent seats. Sitting on one of the side walls also provides a different perspective from which to enjoy the movement of the players and the graceful, sinuous nature of the play.
With such thoughts in mind, one resists the temptation to return to the normal seats and elects to enjoy the opening game of the top string match between home favourite Tom Richards and Mathieu Castagnet. Separated by just three places in the world rankings, one expects a close affair and an absorbing opening game unfolds featuring a number of lengthy, high tempo rallies. Richards appears to gain the ascendancy with a stupendous backhand drop shot from the left service box and, despite a mini revival from his Gallic opponent, wins the first game 11-7.
Post a coaching powwow with team mate Tim Vail on a neighbouring court during the two minute interval Castagnet returns to the main court in fine fettle and storms into a 7-2 lead at the outset of the second game. Richards responds in kind but cannot deny Castagnet as the erstwhile Canary Wharf Classic champion records the visitors’ first point of the night.
Castagnet opens an early three point advantage during the decider but Richards restores parity at five points apiece during a period of breathtaking movement and athleticism from both players. Castagnet again edges into the ascendancy at a crucial juncture of the game though and loses just one more point to notch the Sussex club’s first victory of the match.
The astonishing rallies played out by Richards and Castagnet prompts thoughts on another intriguing aspect of top level Squash: that involving the ball passing behind a player. In other racquet sports such an occurrence likely means that the player is very much on the defensive, scrambling to rescue a point as their opponent has ventured into the ascendancy. In Squash the occurrence of the ball passing behind a player does not possess the same impact as players will routinely allow the ball to pass them and rebound off of the back wall in order to continue the rally, the extra few milliseconds providing the opportunity to play a more advantageous shot. One ponders whether a re-wiring of one’s natural instincts is required when first playing the sport, training the brain to accept that a ball passing one’s racquet and body is not necessarily a dangerous occurrence.
Such ponderings are soon further exemplified during the evening’s final match between Borja Golan and Tim Vail; a veritable battle of the veterans as the age of the two performers totals just three years short of eighty. Despite facing an opponent residing inside the top forty of the world rankings Vail goes toe to toe with Golan during the early stages of the opening game. The Spaniard’s PSA World Tour experience soon emerges though and he cruises to the first game for the loss of just four points.
Early mistakes from Vail and a pair of sublime drop shots from Golan afford the former world number five a considerable advantage at the start of the second game. Vail produces a couple of stunning winners to remain in touch with his opponent but Golan possesses more than enough to keep the Lee-on-Solent resident at arm’s length and closes out the second game, the match and the tie.
Thus, the evening ends in contrasting style to that enjoyed at Chichester four weeks previous. Throughout that particular match the Sussex club always possessed an advantage courtesy of Miles Jenkins’ first up success and the trump card of Mathieu Castagnet in the final match. By the time the Frenchman took to the court for the fourth match of this particular fixture overall honours had been decided with just minor points up for grabs. The scoreboard dictated a facile victory for the defending champions but one senses that Premier League Squash is very much a knife edge business where one unexpected result can change the course of an entire tie. In previous matches St Georges may have been able to call upon the services of the best player in the men’s game but Mohamed El Shorbagy can only win one match on any given evening. Perhaps the key to success in the Premier Squash League is balance throughout all five strings. Four weeks previous Chichester enjoyed a better balance than visiting Bexley. On this particular evening St Georges, despite lacking the aforementioned Egyptian star, possessed just too much fire power across the five matches. Sport is often about contrasts.