The 2/21: Can squash, which merged its tours, give tennis a lesson?

The 2/21: Can squash, which merged its tours, give tennis a lesson?

After combining its men's and women's tours in 2015, the niche sport has emerged stronger and richer.

Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.

To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).

January in New York is normally an exhilarating and exhausting time for racquet-sports fans. For two weeks, we stay up half the night, or longer, watching a little ball go back and forth at the Australian Open. Then, during the day, we take a bleary subway ride to Grand Central Terminal to watch an even smaller ball rattle around a glass court at the one of the world’s most important squash events, the Tournament of Champions (TOC), which has been held inside the train station for the last 23 years.

This January, unfortunately, the city’s squash and tennis lovers had a lot more time on our hands. The Australian Open has been postponed until February 8, and the TOC was cancelled altogether. Just as in tennis, the pro squash tour has operated in fits and starts, and endured dozens of tournament cancellations, since the first Covid shutdowns began last spring.

This isn’t the only similarity between the sports, of course. Both involve racquets and balls, and both originated in England in the 19th century; squash, first played at London’s Harrow School around 1830, is actually four decades older than lawn tennis. But with each of their tours in a holding pattern at the moment, this seemed like a good time to look at one way in which the two games currently differ. It’s also one way in which squash has made itself an example and a test case for its bigger-sister sport.

American player Olivia Blatchford Clyne prepares to serve at the 2017 Tournament of Champions in New York City. (Photo by Anita Aguilar)

There has been a lot of talk in tennis over the last 12 months about unifying the men’s and women’s tours, but squash has already taken the merger plunge. In 2015, the Women’s Squash Association (WSA) joined with the men’s tour, the Professional Squash Association (PSA), to form a single tour, also called the PSA. Judging by what I’ve heard from people around the game this month, there have been few regrets.

“It has been an enormous success,” says James Zug, executive editor at Squash Magazine. “The merger has meant more synergy in promotion and distribution. All major events have prize-money parity, compared to just two before the merger. There are new countries with tournaments. Prize money overall has increased for men and women. There are still more men’s events than women’s, so still more money in the men’s game, but the pay gap has shrunk by half.”

According to PSA CEO Alex Gough, the seeds for the merger were planted a little more than a decade ago. In 2008, Saudi businessman Ziad Al-Turki became tour chairman and set about trying to raise the sport’s profile. The following year, the men’s tour launched its first streaming service, Squash TV. From 2010 to 2013, revenues and prize money in the men’s game began to rise.

“The catalyst came from the women’s side,” Gough says. “Men’s prize money was going up, while theirs was stagnating. I think a lot of people in the sport realized there was no sense in having it fragmented.”

A single, streamlined tour also fit with squash’s eternal, and still unrealized, goal of being included in the Olympics. Still, the idea of a merger didn’t come without its share of pushback and skepticism, much of which will be familiar to tennis fans. Some male squash players balked at the idea of sharing prize money equally, while some of the women worried about playing second fiddle to the men and losing their independent identity.

“It was a leap of faith,” Gough says. “A group of the women had to do a coup in their tour to help make it happen."

At the time, the WSA was home to perhaps the game’s biggest star, Nicol David. A native of Malaysia who retired in 2019, David was ranked No. 1 for 108 straight months from 2005 to 2014, and she won the World Open, squash’s most prestigious prize, a record eight times. By the early 2010s, though, David was being challenged by a group of women from Egypt, a country that had begun to assert itself as a duel-gender squash super-power. Over the last two decades, Egypt has produced a steady stream of No. 1 players, including Amr Shabana, Ramy Ashour and Mohamed El Shorbagy on the men’s side, and Nour El Sherbini and Raneem El Weleily on the women’s. Today, five of the top six men and four of the top five women are Egyptian.

Nicol David (with headband) dominated the women's squash tour much like Serena Williams lorded over the WTA, and both around the same time. (Photo by Anita Aguilar)

The country’s players did more than just dominate the rankings; they also brought a sense of cross-gender solidarity to the tours. The Egyptians traveled together, watched each other’s matches, helped coach each other—men coached women and women coached men—and in the case of Ali Farag and Nour El Tayeb, married each other. In 2017, Farag and Tayeb became the first husband and wife to win a major title, the U.S. Open, on the same day.

“They brought an us-against-the-world attitude,” former U.S. No. 1 Will Carlin says of the Egyptians. “When a top male player shows up to watch a women’s match, that sends a message: Why aren’t you watching this?”

The Egyptian women have also raised the standard of play on their side of the tour.

“They came in and played this faster, more aggressive game,” says U.S. pro Olivia Blatchford Clyne, “which went along with the women showing they can play with a lower tin.”

The “tin” in squash is a metal sheet that covers the bottom of the front wall, and serves the same function as the net in tennis. In the past, the men played with a tin that was 17 inches high, and the women with one 19 inches high. Since the tours merged, each has played with the same 17-inch tin. The lower the tin, the harder it is to get to the ball down on one bounce, and the more frenetic the pace of play becomes.

“Lowering the tin stretches and speeds up the whole game,” Blatchford Clyne says. “I think the women’s sport has become more exciting because of it.”

Squash players at the Manhattan Community Squash Center, with the tin visible in the background. (Photo by Anita Aguilar)

For Gough, the head of the PSA, the biggest benefit of the merger was its streamlining effect. Unlike tennis, where the players essentially work for two separate and sometimes competing companies, squash now has one set of rules, one set of administrators, one set of stars, one set of financial incentives, and one product to sell and promote.

“We’re much more efficient, and our work output has risen three-fold,” Gough says. “In 2009, the men’s tour probably had three administrative employees, and the women’s tour one or two. Now we have 35 to 40 people.”

What matters most to the players, of course, is the prize money. Both sides have made gains in that regard. Since the merger, women’s purses are up 66 percent, and men’s 39 percent. In what Zug calls “a good symbolic moment,” the prize money for the women’s world championship in 2019 was higher than it was the men’s.

The merger isn’t the only reason revenues have increased. Strong pre-pandemic economies, interest in wealthy Middle East nations, and, as Zug says, “a couple of billionaires getting excited about the game” haven’t hurt. But gender equality has also made squash a more attractive product for sponsors. By now, according to Gough, tournament backers like J.P. Morgan and Guggenheim Partners wouldn’t want to be involved if there wasn’t equal pay.

Along with greater financial parity has come a greater sense of camaraderie,  Blatchford Clyne says. Squash players don’t have tennis-style entourages, so they rely on each other for their community.

“You see more men and women practicing together,” she says. “Squash is such a small sport that we all want to do what we can to keep it going.”

“It’s more social, which I think the players like,” Carlin says. “For fans, there’s more variety in who you might see on a given night. A lot of the women have strong personalities, and they pull men’s fans in.”

David (with headband) at the 2014 U.S. Open, held in Philadelphia. (Photo by Anita Aguilar)

At the same time, each side has compromised something. The women watched as the name of their old tour, the WSA, disappeared, while the men have watched the women’s prize money rise at a faster clip than theirs over the last five years.

“There are a few salty men, I’m not gonna lie,” Blatchford Clyne says with a laugh. “So many things have been about women’s empowerment.”

But Blatchford also sees the upside of that empowerment, for men and women players, and for squash as a whole.

“There’s power in finding a new identity,” she says, one where your profession, rather than your gender, comes first, and one where you can join yourself to a more diverse working community.

For tennis to merge its tours would take an even greater leap of faith than it did for squash. There’s thousands of times more money involved, and many more star egos to placate. Figuring out how to fairly administer and promote a co-gender tour in tennis would be more daunting than it was in squash.

“A behemoth,” imagines Gough, who found it laborious enough to merge the WSA into the PSA.

But as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both recognized when they broached the subject of a tennis merger last spring, no one knows how long the pandemic will last, and what the sporting landscape will look like when it’s over. A single tour may not be just a step forward for gender fairness, but something that’s necessary for pro tennis’ survival. Squash shows it’s possible for two tours to be stronger—and richer, and maybe even more fun—when they’re together.