The 2017 AJ Bell World Championships in Manchester has proven significant in establishing sustainable change. Both the men’s & women’s events were held in the same event within the same city & whilst this wasn’t a first, over the history of the two championships it hasn’t been the norm & you need to look back to Rotterdam in 2011 for the previous occurrence the two tournaments were presented concurrently to achieve the same look, feel & atmosphere for both our male & female stars. It was however the first time that equality in the prize money had been achieved, following a trend started by the US Open in 2013 & adopted by a growing number of major events on international circuit.
Despite equal prize money being steadily achieved across the game, there are still many factors that have separated the two genders. The coverage of the female game until this season has always been significantly smaller, restricted to just a few flagship tournaments however with the merger of more major events has come the ability to broadcast on a more equal platform.
The age-old argument persists in some quarters regarding the difference in standard between the women’s product compared with their male counterparts & there is no way that in a sport as physical as squash that this will ever be achieved to the absolute level. However, quality must be measured against what is achievable for each gender & from what we witnessed since Manchester we are close to achieving our desired outcome.
From the outset of most present events it was clear that eight players have realistic ambitions of winning the women’s title which is a far cry from earlier generations which were dominated by one or two stand out figures. The efforts of an increasingly competitive chasing pack have created a shift in standard & resulted in greater depth in the women’s game. That isn’t to downplay the achievements of previous generations but having more players challenging for titles is raising standards & increasing the appeal of the women’s game.
The men’s & women’s product being witnessed on court is different & rightly so as physical attributes will always make the two fundamentally different. The difference of gender will always come through & therefore the tactics & subtleties will continue to vary as players look for percentage gains.
The emergence of Egyptian player has provided the game with a super dose of exciting shot makers & what currently stands out is the movement & physical components exhibited by players to counter the increasing number of short balls. These two things combined take us ever closer to what is achievable.
The fluidity of movement from many female players is reminiscent of greats from the men’s game such as Jansher Khan, whilst their skill level with a racket resembles can be pared with the likes of James Willstrop at his best. It isn’t right to compare women to players in our men’s game because they are becoming true icons of our sport in their own right.
For physicality & intensity, you don’t have to look much further than Nour El Sherbini or Nouran Gohar, whilst mental toughness can be found in abundance from the evergreen Nour El Tayeb. Tactical awareness & desire can always be found from a plethora of players such as Amanda Sobhy & the anticipated emergence of younger talents will only fuel the fires to achieve even more.
To achieve absolute parity there are a few key differences that we appear ever closer to achieving across the two games. The next step is to look towards equal draw sizes at future world championships. A step towards equal draw sizes can only help in bringing the quality we are seeing at the top of the game filter down the ranks.
The other area that needs focus is the depth of the talent pool & the number of players competing on the respective circuits. Currently the women’s rankings house far fewer players than that on the men’s circuit. These two aspects are increasingly likely to be achieved with the continued joint administration of the World Tour by the Professional Squash Association (PSA)with that later needing the support of all respective governing bodies around the world. Campaigns such as #thisgirlcan launched recently by England Squash can only help this cause.
The final element that needs to be achieved for our game to build upon the its current momentum is to create icons & role models of a greater definition in the women’s game. We have seen this in the men’s game with the adoption of recognisable nicknames & which has helped to increase the profile & status of our marquee players which is helping them to be more marketable for squash brands & other sponsors. More importantly though it inspires the next generation. We have an increasing number of players from our current crop of stars ready to be marketed better & this will bring an increasing realisation to women & girls that sport is for all & that our great game offers equally thriving opportunities across the board.