Following the success of this year’s PSA World Series Finals in Dubai, Sam Price reports on the growing excitement ahead of the 2016/17 Road to Dubai, as the Hong Kong Open gets under way
Whisper it quietly, but squash is on the rise.
In May, the sight of the world’s top-ranked players battling it out in a purpose-built glass court in view of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building – showed the power of this dynamic sport to evolve, engage and excite.
Players from Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, North America and South America descended on the emirate for the season-ending Dubai Professional Squash Association (PSA) World Series Finals – won by France’s Grégory Gaultier and England’s Laura Massaro respectively – and this cosmopolitan line-up, combined with new technological developments, showcased the growing appeal of the sport worldwide.
Much of the progress is down to PSA Chairman Ziad Al-Turki, whose vision, ambition and investment has propelled the World Tour to new heights in recent years. Players now compete for Road to Dubai ranking points at each PSA World Series event – held in a diverse range of stunning locations across the world – to earn a coveted place at the end-of-season extravaganza. And in Dubai, the squash supremo believes he’s found the perfect host.
“Dubai is known to have the best for the best,” says Al-Turki. “You’ve got some of the biggest tournaments in the world here in different sports, and to get a spectacular tournament like the World Series Finals, where you bring the top eight men and top eight women in the world to a finale, is going to be the catalyst to take squash to the next level.”
The signs are promising ahead of the Hong Kong Open – the opening tournament of the PSA World Series season, which begins on 23 August. In 2015/16, the finals offered a combined prize fund of US$320,000 across the two events, with men and women getting an equal share for the first time in the history of the competition. And technological advancements mirrored the social developments, with a wall behind the ‘Z Court’ showing live pictures, highlights and sponsors’ messages for the first time ever, while new LED lighting helped to capture super slow-motion TV images.
These innovations are making squash a more exciting spectacle, both for the live audience and TV viewers, and the debut of the technology in Dubai puts the city at the forefront of efforts to elevate the sport. The new home for the finals is popular with the players too, with three-time world champion Nick Matthew envisaging huge potential benefits as a result of the three-year arrangement.
“I think it’s a massive step in the right direction for the PSA World Tour,” said the British number one. “These spectacular locations – Grand Central Station in New York, the Pyramids in Cairo, Hong Kong Harbour – for me, are what make squash so special. And now, with Dubai, squash has a new frontier. It’s a great step for these finals, and hopefully will propel them.”
The success of the first PSA World Series Finals to be held in Dubai suggests that Matthew may well be correct, but organisers are not resting on their laurels. Instead, the next two editions will be staged at a brand-new venue – the state-of-the-art Dubai Opera House, in a deal facilitated by Falcon and Associates. It will be the first occasion of sport taking place in the glittering Downtown Dubai building, and the 2,000-seat, multi-format theatre promises to provide a setting to match the high-class action on the court.
The move is set to raise the profile of squash even higher, and represents a key element of the vision to inspire a new generation of players – both in the emirate, and around the world.
The 2016 Hong Kong Open starts on Tuesday, August 23.