I am motivated to write this article after reading about a tournament recently played in Malaysia. It was a major event for the women’s draw - a $70,000 purse that involved all the top 10 players on the ranking – and a medium sized event for the men – a $50,000 purse that included 5 players out of the top 20.
The report found on SquashSite.com made me raise my eyebrows three times. Firstly, at the length of the men’s final. It’s not all that unusual to see matches go over 100 minutes, but whenever I see three digits in that column I always tend to tip my hat to the players. I have experienced a handful of matches that have taken that long, know the physical and mental toll, and respect anyone who achieves it. This particular final was recorded as 112 minutes. And the player who won had another 112 minute win in round 1 as well.
Secondly, my eye-brows almost reached my hair-line (which has receded dramatically over the years and is a long way away!) when I read how many ‘let’ calls there were through that match – 100. I think my almost 6 year old daughter can figure out that’s almost 1 ‘let’ call every minute. Considering there were 103 points played, they literally played 2 rallies to win each point. Are you kidding me? Much of the blame was placed squarely on the referees for not punishing the players enough with ‘strokes’ and / or ‘no lets’, but I would also place much of the blame on the players too. As professionals, they certainly know how to avoid many interference situations and clearly neither finalist was making any effort to minimize it. The WSF (World Squash Federation) better hope there weren’t any IOC delegates present.
Thirdly, my over-stretched eye-brows created stretch marks when I read that the darling of the women’s squash world – world number 1 Nicol David (this particular event was actually named after her) - received a conduct warning in the final for what appears to be aggressive play due to the frustration of so many ‘let’ decisions from the referee. Nicol won 3-0 anyway, but just the fact that her feathers got ruffled was enough to make headlines. That’s like the Dalai Lama being arrested for aggravated assault.
This also brings back the not-so-fond memories of the Motor City Open while watching one of the quarter finals. The 20 or so minutes it took to finish the second game which was maybe 6 or 7 points had about 20 plus ‘let’ decisions. At one point, there were about 10 consecutive ‘lets’. You could hear the groans of disapproval in the crowd, and it was also obvious the players themselves weren’t exactly enjoying it either but for some reason they couldn’t seem to break out of the rut. When it rains, it pours – this was a monsoon. It’s a pity that for a tournament as wonderful as the Motor City Open, the thing the people in the crowd that evening will most remember the event by will be the ‘let’ fest and not the great squash.
The Malaysian tournament no doubt had official referees at the helm. Supposedly qualified enough to adjudicate a squash match of world class level. The Motor City Open requires the players to referee themselves which I believe is completely the wrong way to go. But you can’t blame the Motor City Open for that scenario – the majority of PSA (Professional Squash Association) events force the players to referee. They hate it. And because it’s their peers they are judging, they are most of the time too lenient – after all, who wants to argue with the players your spending the week with?
So when I read about the 100 ‘lets’ in 112 minutes in Malaysia, immediately PST (Pro Squash Tour) came to mind. The SquashSite.com forum had a thread about this very topic and the consensus was that referees needed to be stricter and award more ‘strokes’ and / or ‘no lets’. Punish blocking, punish fishing, and keep play continuous. Ring a familiar tone? That is exactly what PST has been preaching during their 2 years of existence. Which makes me wonder why so many people from the same forum castigate PST and its founder Joe McManus for addressing the issue head-on – albeit with a little rule tweaking? By the way, PST tournaments bring their own referee with them to all their events. The players are required to be side judges in case of any appeals, but they are never the central referee.
For all the cries of insisting referees apply the rules more sternly, it’s obvious it is simply not working. If the people in control of the tools just can’t use the tools properly, you take those tools away. If I told my daughter to stop cutting her doll’s hair with the scissors, but she continued to snip away, how would I make her stop? I’d take the items away. If referees insist on continuing awarding ‘lets’ despite the rules stating that they have the right to award a ‘stroke’ or ‘no let’ instead, guess what? Stop giving them that option.
All that being said, I don’t think the PST has hatched the golden egg here. But they are certainly a long way ahead of the PSA on this. I am still convinced – as I have said before – that some situations on the court cleanly justify a ‘let’ and a replay of the rally. But the PST rules encourage players to clear more, and encourage players to go for the ball more – and I can say that with confidence since I have personally experienced playing in - and watching - one of their tournaments.