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The year in sport 2018: Squash

For a sport that has thus far been marginalised from Olympic inclusion, squash has enjoyed good exposure this past year.

Featuring at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires and with the Professional Squash Association’s (PSA) YouTube channel most recently hitting 100,000 subscribers, the global reach of squash is at an all-time high heading into 2019.

However, for over a decade now, drawing a ‘thumbs-up’ from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been torturous and unsuccessful – a coveted place at Paris 2024 still remains the ultimate goal.

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As challenging a task as it is, there is little doubt that World Squash Federation President, Jacques Fontaine, will have a plethora of political weapons with which to lobby the IOC over the next few years.

Diplomacy aside, squash has been somewhat defined by a generational transition this season – most notably from an English perspective.

2018 saw the retirement of former world number one and three-time world champion Nick Matthew, while his long-time rival and compatriot James Willstrop celebrated the twilight of his career with Commonwealth gold in April.

One of the rapidly rising stars emerging from their wake is Declan James, who embodied the gradual changing of the guard with victory over Willstrop in the final of the season’s curtain raiser in Nantes.

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The Nottingham-based 25-year-old has broken into the top 20 in the world this year, and also enjoyed Commonwealth success with Team England – taking bronze alongside Willstrop in the Men’s Doubles.

Given the speed of his improvement, James is the exciting English prospect to watch on the men’s side in 2019.

Much of the same narrative is true on the women’s tour as well, as Sarah-Jane Perry has recently taken over from former world champion Laura Massaro as England’s number one.

Perry has really come of age in 2018, equalling her career-high world-ranking of six, as well as adding Commonwealth silver and the flagship Netsuite Open title to her array of accolades.

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She looks poised to break into the top five in the world in 2019 and possesses all the attributes required to do so.

Through a global lens, however, the Egyptian dominance at the top of both the men’s and women’s world rankings has been unwavering throughout 2018.

Mohamed Elshorbagy and Ali Farag have largely dominated the men’s game, developing an enthralling rivalry off the back of multiple finals contested this past year.

Elshorbagy is the current world champion and world number one, despite only just hanging on to his ranking in November – Farag missing the chance to leapfrog him after coming up shy in the Black Ball Open in Cairo.

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Yet there have been impressive challenges to the status quo interspersed throughout the year.

Victory for world number three Simon Rosner at the prestigious Tournament of Champions in January has helped justify the German’s billing as the most-improved player on tour in 2018.

Moreover, a shock British Open title for Colombian entertainer Miguel Angel Rodriguez also reminded us of the depth of the competing field and their ability to upset the odds when it comes to major titles.

The women’s rankings, however, follow a similar pattern – Egyptians Raneem El Welily and Nour El Sherbini have been fighting back and forth for the world number one ranking all year, with very little between the two stars.

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Outside of the top two, Nour El Tayeb looks closest to upsetting the current seeding, while Kiwi Joelle King has enjoyed a brilliant year, beating Perry to Commonwealth gold before clinching her first PSA Platinum title at the Hong Kong Open in November.

Early 2019 will bless us with the Tournament of Champions (held in the spectacular Grand Central Terminal in New York) in January, before the World Championships take place in Chicago in February.

For those looking to topple the Egyptian powerhouses, two of the biggest events of the year will soon provide a wonderful chance to do so.

Robert Clayden
Rob, 24, is a history graduate from the University of Warwick. Following his studies, he spent two years working in the education sector as a director at a tutoring firm, and still continues to work with young people in a sports coaching capacity for squash and cricket. Before undertaking his Sports Journalism Master’s at St Mary’s University, Rob spent the summer of 2018 working for digital golf magazine Golf Today. A competitive sportsman, Rob’s personal strengths and interests lie in racket sports, cricket, golf and American sports, and he joins the plethora of Surrey-based Manchester Utd fans that grace the South-East. Recent visits to Boston and San Francisco have affirmed his love for the sports culture in the US, with a more permanent move out there a long-term aspiration. You will likely find him tweeting propaganda for squash’s inclusion as an Olympic sport at anyone who will listen.
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